Mining companies and explorers came from far and wide to lodge tenders in Victoria’s hotly contested release of four exploration blocks surrounding Kirkland Lake’s (ASX:KLA) fabled Fosterville gold mine near Bendigo.

Tenders for the mineral exploration rights to the four “prospective’’ blocks closed in February and the winners were due to be announced about now.

Success with the tenders was set to be a major value-creating event – prompting the need for the process to be overseen by an independent probity adviser.

But COVID-19 has got in the way, with the government now saying an announcement on the outcome of the tender has been delayed until the second half of the year.

The 2016 discovery of super high-grade gold beneath old workings at Fosterville has turned the once struggling operation into one of the world’s best gold mines, with its output of 620,000oz in (calendar) 2019 coming at a cash cost of less than $US120 ($187) an ounce.

Figures like that make Fosterville hugely profitable and the hope is that there is another one to be found in what is known as the North Bendigo Zone.

The is an area where the prospective rocks can be hidden by as much as 200m of Murray Basin sediments, unlike Fosterville and Bendigo (22 million ounces historic production) where the gold-bearing rocks originally “daylighted.’’

The government reckons there could be as much as 32 million ounces of hidden gold to be found in the zone which is already the scene of exploration for the next Fosterville – or the next Bendigo – by a bunch of ASX-listed miners and explorers.

It is the proximity of the four blocks to Fosterville and the similar geological features that has fired up interest in the tender.

While there is a big dose of share market “nearology’’ interest in the ground, there are also plenty of technical reasons why the exploration ground is highly prized.

A bunch of ASX-listed companies have flagged they have lodged tenders in what is officially known as the North Central Victorian Goldfields Ground Release Tender. It is no ordinary tender, with proposed work programs only part of the government’s scoring system.

Responsible exploration – covering consideration of traditional owner wishes, local content and sustainability, among other things – accounts for 45 points in the 100-point scoring system.

While the dollar value of the work programs in the tenders will serve as a tie-breaker in the ranking system, the broad scope of what could be a winning tender means that the contest is not necessarily limited to big companies with deep pockets.

As mentioned earlier, the winning tenders are set to be a major value-creating event. A flavour of that came with the recent listing in Canada – it is Kirkland Lake’s home market – of an exploration company called Fosterville South.

It recently listed on the Toronto Venture Exchange without raising any equity but started out with $C6m ($6.6m) in cash thanks to the early backing of famous gold investor Eric Sprott and others.

It is now a $C75m company on the strength of an exploration property to the south Kirkland Lake’s Fosterville tenements, and its interests in some old high-grade goldfields elsewhere in the broader Bendigo Zone.

There is a long list of local players that have entered the tender. Those that confirmed their participation in their recently released March quarter reports included:

Navarre Minerals (ASX:NML), 10.5c for a market cap of $50m. It said it had applied for three blocks to the north and along strike of Fosterville. Navarre Minerals is a 49 per cent partner with Catalyst in the Tandarra joint venture to the north of Bendigo.

Catalyst Metals (ASX:CYL), $2.83 for a market cap of $233m. Apart from Tandarra, Catalyst is a 50:50 joint venture partner with Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting in the Four Eagles project north of Bendigo. Catalyst said it had teamed up with Hancock Prospecting in a tender for three blocks.

Kalamazoo Resources (ASX:KZR), 36c for a market cap of $44m. The Castlemaine explorer recently attracted investment from Canada’s Novo Resources and Eric Sprott. It tendered for two blocks, one immediately to the east of Fosterville, the other to the south.

Chalice Gold (ASX:CHN), $1.19 for a market cap of $328m. Chalice’s market cap took off recently in response to its Julimar nickel discovery in WA. But it was travelling well before that in response to success in uncovering virgin gold mineralisation at its Pyramid Hill project, north of Bendigo. It tendered for three blocks.