The jury still out on Esprit
Mullins' grey needs stiffer test than Thurles to convince he's a real Gold Cup contender
WHEN it comes to horse racing, there isn't a whole lot Ireland lacks. But at the moment there appears to be a big void in potential Gold Cup candidates.
Jonjo O'Neill's Synchronised winning the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown was a big blow to the seemingly leading candidates Rubi Light and Quito De La Roque. However, the latter appears set to get another chance in the Hennessy at the same venue next month.
Over the last year or so, social network site Twitter has become a very popular forum of discussion and one of the racing topics to ignite over the weekend was the possibility of Quel Esprit making the Gold Cup frame.
Willie Mullins' grey didn't sway bookmakers either way after a facile, yet expected, success at Thurles on Saturday and he remained a general 40/1 for the Cheltenham showpiece.
However, since then, a steady, albeit not bank-breaking stream of money has seen him cut into a general 25/1 shot and now, along with the yet to be seen this season Jessies Dream, Quel Esprit is the shortest-priced Irish horse in the betting for the Gold Cup.
Throughout bookmakers' shops and Twitter accounts, Quel Esprit's Thurles win split opinion on Saturday.
Personally, I felt the 40/1 on offer after his Thurles win was in fact still too short on the evidence of what we have seen so far. So needless to say, I wouldn't be rushing to take the 25/1 on offer, although 40/1 can still be sourced with William Hill.
Quel Esprit has now enjoyed two immense and well-timed confidence boosters either side of the Christmas period. He needed them, having failed to complete on his last three starts over fences.
The fact remains that he is unbeaten when completing over fences, but although unlucky to be brought down at Punchestown at the Festival, he did fall twice in Grade Ones as a novice when the revs were up and the race was on.
It would appear the tendency to do that is probably gone now. However, we cannot really judge that until he is thrown into another Grade One when taking on classier opposition at a brisker pace.
Punters who have invested in the eight-year-old for Cheltenham glory should be hoping that Mullins now targets the Hennessy next month rather than the Kinloch Brae at the end of the month to give them a guide where their investment lies.
The Kinloch Brae would be a step up in class, but it is unlikely to be on the best of ground and it wouldn't be a strong enough test to answer if he's up to previous Gold Cup winners Long Run and Kauto Star.
But running in the Hennessy may not be the sternest of tests either. There will be no Kauto Star, Long Run or Grand Crus and they are the three to beat in the Gold Cup.
Being trained by a certain Willie Mullins means that nothing would surprise me as regards to just how high up the ladder he could go, though, and if I were to stand in the parade ring after this year's Gold Cup waiting for Quel Esprit to return to the number-one spot, it wouldn't be a major shock, owing to the fact that his trainer has proven to be a bit of a genius.
However, I do feel those who have backed him at 40/1 have done so prematurely, as his hurdling form wasn't exactly that inspiring to suggest that he can go to Cheltenham and topple a 12-year-old, in-form Kauto Star or even a seemingly out-of-form reigning champion Long Run.
Hopefully, Quel Esprit or Jessies Dream will fill that void of an Irish Gold Cup candidate. Next month's Hennessy could hold a lot of relevant answers.