Peter Casey believes Flemenstar is “better than ever” ahead of his star chaser's second stab at three miles in Leopardstown's Hennessy Gold Cup on Saturday week with a bid for Cheltenham Festival glory looming.
The bold-jumping son of Flemensfirth looked destined for glory when tanking into the lead around the home turn in last month's Lexus Chase.
But he eventually emerged just third best in a thrilling tussle with Tidal Bay and First Lieutenant, raising questions as to whether the three-mile journey stretched his stamina reserves.
Flemenstar raced keenly from off the pace under Andrew Lynch in the Lexus, but Casey, Lynch and the nine-year-old's owner Stephen Curran hope that a return to more positive tactics will aid his cause in the Hennessy.
While he holds entries in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham in March, the Betfred Gold Cup remains the preferred option.
“He's in really great form at the moment,” Casey said of the pride of his Tubbertown yard. “I think he's better than he ever was. Saturday week will tell us whether he stays three miles or not. We'll know a lot more after that.”
Leopardstown's rain-sodden chase course was subject to a number of inspections ahead of last weekend's racing.
Of the prospect of heavy going on February 9, Casey added: “Flemenstar can handle good ground and he can handle wet ground, but he doesn't like it sticky. If the ground is like it was last weekend, that will do me.”
Flemenstar is the 7/4 joint-favourite for the Hennessy with Sir Des Champs, which finished a staying-on fourth, beaten less than a length in the Lexus.
Willie Mullins' dual Cheltenham Festival hero is an intended runner in the Grade One, while Tidal Bay is expected to again make the journey from Paul Nicholls' Somerset yard.
With the 2011 JNwine.com Champion Chase winner Quito De La Roque, Bog Warrior, China Rock and Seabass other potential starters, a thorough test looks guaranteed.
Mouse Morris confirmed yesterday that China Rock, which tired into fifth on his seasonal debut in the Lexus, will bid for a second triumph at the highest level in the feature event.
“He ran well for a long way in the Lexus and just got tired,” said Morris. “I think he's come on a ton for the run.”
Ted Walsh reported that the Hennessy is the preferred starting point for his leading Aintree Grand National fancy Seabass.
A brilliant third under the trainer's daughter Katie at Aintree last year, Seabass and stablemate Colbert Station are among 32 Irish-based entries for the Liverpool showpiece on April 6.
The last two Irish National winners, Organisedconfusion and Lion Na Bearnai, are entered, as is 2012 Galway Plate winner Bob Lingo.
“The plan is to go to Aintree with him, but we have to get him qualified first,” Mullins said of the JP McManus-owned 11-year-old.
“Although he won a Galway Plate going away over two miles and six furlongs, he needs to finish in the first four over three miles, so the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse (February 23) is the obvious race to go for.”
Mullins revealed that last season's prolific hurdler Alderwood will make his handicap bow over fences in the Dan Moore Memorial Chase at Fairyhouse on Saturday ahead of a possible tilt at the Grand Annual at Cheltenham in March.
He also said that King Of Queens, disappointing in the Boylesports.com Hurdle, could tackle the Red Mills Hurdle at Gowran Park in a fortnight, with the County Hurdle a likely Cheltenham target.