Darver Star bids to reverse recent form with Felix Desjy in the Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown on Saturday.
Gavin Cromwell’s Darver Star was only narrowly denied by top-class mare Honeysuckle on his latest visit to Leopardstown for the Irish Champion Hurdle in February and went on to prove that effort was no fluke by finishing third in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
The eight-year-old made a fine start to his career over fences at Punchestown in October, but proved no match for the Gordon Elliott-trained Felix Desjy in a Grade Two at the same venue last month.
Darver Star has almost 10 lengths to make up in the Grade One feature on day one of Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, but Cromwell is optimistic his stable star can close the gap.
He said: “Obviously we’ll have to improve a bit to beat him (Felix Desjy), but we’ve been happy with him since the last day and he’s had his palate cauterised, which we hope might help.
“He seems in good nick at home and I think a bit nicer ground might help him travel a bit better.
“We know he’s run well in Leopardstown before, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed.”
Felix Desjy is unbeaten in two starts over fences and is favourite to complete his hat-trick under Jack Kennedy.
“He has made a bright start over fences and I was very pleased with him when he won a Grade Two at Punchestown last month, beating a good horse in Sizing Pottsie,” Elliott told Betfair.
“He showed at Punchestown that he has relaxed quite a bit since his novice hurdling days, which is a help as now he doesn’t have to make the running.
“He’s a very talented horse who won at Grade One level as a novice hurdler and we always hoped he would reach a similar level over fences and his last run would look to give him a good chance here.”
Willie Mullins has saddled five of the last nine winners of the race, with Douvan, Min and Footpad among those on the roll of honour.
This year the champion trainer fires a twin assault, with Blackbow and Franco De Port stepping up in class after winning on their respective debuts over fences at Navan and Thurles.
Assistant trainer Patrick Mullins said: “Blackbow won a Grade Two bumper at Leopardstown a couple of years ago and seems to be a far superior chaser than hurdler.
“His fencing was very slick in Navan. He’s going to have to step up an awful lot to match the likes of Darver Star and Felix Desjy, who have proper Grade One form.
“The same goes for Franco De Port. He disappointed us a bit last season, but it wasn’t an easy season for him after coming from France.
“We think a lot of him, but he’s going to have to step up to show he’s a proper Grade One horse here.”
Henry de Bromhead’s Benruben and Embittered from Joseph O’Brien’s yard complete the line-up.
The main supporting race is the Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle, in which Elliott’s Zanahiyr is the star attraction.
The Nathaniel gelding was hugely impressive in winning a Grade Three contest at Fairyhouse last month and will be well fancied to give weight and a beating to six rivals at Grade Two level.
“After this horse won at Fairyhouse the plan was to wait for the Dublin Racing Festival, but he is very well in himself and seems to be in great form, so we’ve decided to let him take his chance,” said Elliott.
“You couldn’t really have asked for any more from him at Fairyhouse and if he turns up in that sort of form again he is the one they will all have to beat. He’s exciting and I think the best is yet to come from him. ”
His opponents include Mullins’ Fairyhouse runner-up Saint Sam and his stablemate Ha D’or, who makes his Irish debut after winning a French bumper during the summer.
“We think Saint Sam is a better horse than he showed in Fairyhouse, but he was beaten quite comprehensively by Zanahiyr and we’re just hoping he can show a little bit more,” Patrick Mullins added.
“Ha D’or is a horse we think an awful lot of. He’s not a real juvenile horse – he looks like a horse that will jump a fence in time and he could be a Djakadam-type, maybe.
“It’s hard to place them after they’ve won in France and it’s very hard for him to start off in a Grade Two.
“We’ll find out more about him, but to me he’s a horse for the future.”