Sir Des Champs lays down Gold Cup marker — but his biggest battle is yet to come

It was billed as a day of destiny and so it proved.

Sir Des Champs v Flemenstar: Act Three. The previous two had gone the way of Peter Casey’s exuberant star but their Christmas showdown in a thrilling Lexus Chase at Leopardstown raised more questions than answers about Gold Cup prospects next month as the duo finishing a close third and fourth respectively behind Tidal Bay and First Lieutenant.

Was Sir Des Champs over-hyped? Was his jumping below the level required to be a credible contender at Cheltenham? Did Flemenstar really stay three miles and, even if he did, could he manage another couple of furlongs up the punishing Cheltenham hill? Did the fact both were beaten by a horse then a few days short of his 12th birthday (no 12-year-old has won the Gold Cup since What A Myth in 1969) show neither were good enough to end Ireland’s seven-year Gold Cup itch?

On Saturday, minus Tidal Bay, First Lieutenant and late defection, Bog Warrior, and facing just two rivals in Quel Esprit, last year’s winner, and Joncol, the 2010 victor, Sir Des Champs and Flemenstar met again at Leopardstown and the picture became significantly clearer.

In the build-up to the Hennessy Gold Cup, Sir Des Champs’ jockey Davy Russell, said the time had come for his charge to deliver. The seven-year-old did as instructed and afterwards winning trainer Willie Mullins paid tribute to Russell’s tactical ingenuity.

“I thought Davy was very good,” Mullins said. “He inserted lots of pace going down to the fourth last when he looked around and saw how well Andrew Lynch (on Flemenstar) was going and that was the decisive move.

” Davy had to do that to win. He had to make it a staying race which he did. The further they were going the better we appeared to be going.”

That injection to what had been a sedate pace theretofore drew the sting from Flemenstar’s stamina and the 4/5 favourite was, albeit narrowly enough, found wanting on the run for home.

Prior to the race, Casey had been uncharacteristically coy about his tactics. Some might have argued that given his jumping is Flemenstar’s most potent weapon, that it might have been worth letting him bound along in front. Instead Lynch anchored his charge out the back and restrained him in a bid to preserve his stamina.

It didn’t work but Russell argued his horse would have won the day regardless of the tactics employed.

“If he was going to drop off closer I was going to make a good test of it anyway. Andrew probably had two choices, to make it or to drop in. I don’t think he chose the wrong option – I think I’d have beaten him either way.”

Casey agreed. “I think he (Lynch) did everything right. The horse wasn’t good enough on the day and that’s it.”

While the Lexus wasn’t entirely conclusive, the Hennessy suggested that three miles is a bridge too far for Flemenstar. Indeed, even had he, for instance, led by seven or eight lengths turning for home and won by a length the questions would have remained about his ability to see out the longer trip at Cheltenham.

As it happened, he never did get his head in front and Casey conceded the Gold Cup dream is over. The Ryanair Chase is an option but the trainer’s enthusiasm about a mouth-watering Champion Chase showdown with Sprinter Sacre was obvious.

“I’d love to take your man on. It would be the best race of the whole thing, wouldn’t it?”

For Mullins, winning the Hennessy for a remarkable ninth time, the dream of a first Gold Cup remains very much alive. Russell spoke of being far happier with Sir Des Champs than he had been in the Lexus and Mullins, whose four-timer on Saturday included three Grade 1s, feels there’s more to come at Prestbury Park, a venue where the Gigginstown horse has claimed victories in the last two Festivals.

“Every year he improves in the spring. He’s been to Cheltenham twice and he loves the place. He loves that hill, so I’m hoping that he can show what he did the last two years, that he can keep improving coming into March.”

And his jumping? ‘‘His jumping errors at Christmas left him too far out of the race at the second last, but he got his jumping right today. One or two of the early fences I thought he got quite low and I said he better improve on that which he did.’’

The Gold Cup may be down one contender in Flemenstar but with English Hennessy winner Bob’s Worth, King George victor Long Run and Silviniaco Conti very much in the mix, Sir Des Champs’ biggest battle is yet to come.

The Champion Chase, meanwhile, may not be a procession for Sprinter Sacre after all.

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