Monalee bids to open his account for the campaign ahead of a likely return to Cheltenham in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park on Saturday.
Henry de Bromhead’s charge has filled the runner-up spot on each of his two previous appearances at Prestbury Park, chasing home Penhill in the 2017 Albert Bartlett before finishing seven lengths behind the impressive Presenting Percy in last season’s RSA Chase.
A rematch with Presenting Percy looked to be on the cards in this weekend’s Grade Two feature in County Kilkenny, but with the Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite not declared Monalee looks the one to beat following two fine efforts in defeat so far this term.
De Bromhead said ahead of the two-and-a-half-mile affair: “We need to get a run into Monalee and the Red Mills Chase looks like a good opportunity to do that.
“I’m not sure what the race will tell us in regards to future plans, but I hope the trip on Saturday should be ideal for him.”
Monalee was last seen finishing second behind the impressive Kemboy in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown in December and is entered in the Ryanair Chase – as well as the Gold Cup – at the Festival next month.
“We didn’t run him at Leopardstown (in the Irish Gold Cup) because of the ground, but thankfully we’ve had a bit more rain down the country and the ground at Gowran should be fine,” De Bromhead added.
“Monalee seems in good form and he needs a run. Any option after this weekend was just getting a little close to Cheltenham so we look forward to getting him back out.
“Gowran Park has been a lucky track for us down through the years.”
Locally-based Willie Mullins has claimed this prize twice in the last four years with Champagne Fever (2015) and Ballycasey (2017).
This season the champion trainer relies on Killultagh Vic, who switches back to fences after finishing a close-up third behind Presenting Percy in the Galmoy Hurdle.
“We have run him twice over hurdles this season and he had a very good run in the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park last month,” said Mullins.
“We have decided to let him take his chance back over fences as he is suited by the conditions of the race, but it is going to be a tough contest for him at this trip – which is short of his best distance.
“But it is our local track and it is nice ground so we we’ll see how he jumps back over fences and see where we go then.”
The other two runners both carry the colours of JP McManus.
Last year’s Irish Gold Cup hero Edwulf has plenty to prove after finishing down the field on each of his two starts so far this season.
Trainer Joseph O’Brien said: “Edwulf takes his chance on Saturday with the ground appearing suitable for him.
“We’ve given him an entry in the Grand National at Aintree, but that is only an option at the moment and Saturday might tell us a bit more about where we are going for the rest of the season.
“He’s in good form.”
Tony Martin’s Anibale Fly was third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and fourth in the Grand National at Aintree last spring.
He has raced just once since, however, finishing sixth in the Hilly Way Chase over an inadequate two miles at Cork in December.
“We’ve had to be patient with the ground, but it looks like it should be plenty safe for him in Gowran. It’s all systems go,” said Martin.
“He ran in the Hilly Way at Cork and it was a nice run, but the extra half-mile should make a big difference to him and be a help.
“It’s important to get a run into him before Cheltenham and we were running out of options.
“He’s a top-class horse and what he did in Cheltenham in the Gold Cup last year was a great performance, so hopefully we can try to get him back there again next month.”