Lord Windermere heads Ireland bid to strike Gold in Cheltenham
Jim Culloty's reigning champion Lord Windermere heads an initial 13-strong delegation that could make Friday, March 13 a lucky one for Irish-trained horses in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Jump racing's most cherished prize returned to these shores in dramatic style last year when Davy Russell's mount caused one of the biggest upsets in recent times in the £550,000 event.
On His Own narrowly lost out to the Cork-based winner, and the game 11-year-old is one of five that Willie Mullins has entered in a bid to plunder an elusive victory in the marquee event from which he has come away with the runner-up spoils on four occasions.
Ballycasey, Boston Bob, Djakadam and Champagne Fever are Mullins' four other contenders.
Each of the first five home in 2014 are all entered again.
Mouse Morris's First Lieutenant could attempt to record another Gold Cup triumph for the man who saddled War Of Attrition to a famous 2005 win, while Noel Meade, who twice saddled Harbour Pilot to be placed in the three-mile-two-furlong showpiece, could rely on the vastly improved recent Lexus Chase victor Road To Riches, winner of the JNwine.com Champion Chase at the Down Royal Festival in November.
John Kiely's Carlingford Lough, fifth on his reappearance in the Lexus, is one of two JP McManus-owned entries along with Jonjo O'Neill's Irish Grand National winner Shutthefrontdoor.
Gordon Elliott's Don Cossack, Henry De Bromhead's Home Farm, Pat Fahy's Morning Assembly and Culloty's 2014 Kim Muir Chase hero Spring Heeled complete the cross-channel contingent.
In all, 35 horses are entered, with the dual King George VI Chase hero Silviniaco Conti a best-priced 3/1 favourite to provide Paul Nicholls with a remarkable fifth success.
Silviniaco Conti is the outstanding candidate. He fell whilst travelling strongly three-out in 2013 and floundered up the hill last year, having seemingly been in command over the last fence. It is unlikely a lack of stamina was his downfall, as stomach ulcers were identified as the root of his tendency to waver late on.
With that addressed and the application of cheek-pieces revitalising him further, the nine-year-old has this term reasserted his status as the pre-eminent staying chaser of his generation.
Road To Riches is one of Silviniaco Conti's main challengers.
Meade's eight-year-old has improved at a rate of knots since gallantly failing to concede weight to Operating in a Punchestown handicap last May.
Successful in the Galway Plate off 149, an 11th hour decision to tackle Sizing Europe at Gowran Park just failed.
He got back on track at Down Royal, before a mature Bryan Cooper steer saw him come from just off the lead to storm home for a second Grade One in the Lexus.
He has never been to Cheltenham and the extended trip is an unknown, but both of those disadvantages are surmountable.
Lord Windermere saves his very best for Cheltenham, and in Best Mate's jockey Jim Culloty he has a trainer who knows the value of peaking a horse for that one day in March.
Never threatened in the Lexus but ran an almost identical race 12 months earlier, and his Punchestown return was more encouraging than last season's comeback at Newbury.
In that context, you could say that preparations are going equally well this time.
So it will be fascinating to see how he fares in next month's Hennessy Gold Cup.
Regardless of that outcome, he comes into his own over three-and-a-quarter miles at Prestbury Park.
Ulster-bred Bobs Worth, trained by Nicky Henderson, was beaten for a first time in six starts at Cheltenham when fifth to Lord Windermere last year.
Ten-year-olds don't have a great record in the race, but his reappearance in the Lexus wasn't without promise, and it was certainly better than last season's, after which he improved greatly to claim the Leopardstown feature.
Plans are fluid but, given his affinity for the track which saw him win the big race in 2013, he is still an each-way contender.
There are several live outsiders, including Many Clouds, Unioniste, On His Own, Don Cossack, Holywell, Taquin Du Seuil and Shutthefrontdoor.