Snow Falcon set off at a strong pace in the three-mile race but the complexion changed when he crashed out at the fourth hurdle. That left the well-backed Alpha Des Obeaux in front, likely sooner than ideal, but he held that position until Martello Tower moved to challenge leaving the backstraight for the final time.
The front two went at it hard from that point and, as it had become apparent favourite Arctic Fire was not going to play a significant part, it was left to the Gordon Elliott-trained Prince Of Scars to mount a telling challenge.
Russell bided his time, allowing the front two push each other hard and, as that battle took its toll, he produced his mount with a strong run as they raced to the final hurdle. A length in front jumping the last, the 10-1 chance stayed on strongly to quadruple his advantage by the line.
“I didn’t think he’d be good enough to beat them, but delighted to get it as we hit the crossbar a lot over the past few days,” said winning trainer Gordon Elliott.
“Davy’s ridden lots of winners for me over the years, and did exactly what we told him. We said to follow them around, try to sneak some prize-money and thankfully he picked up plenty.”
Although introduced at 16-1 for the World Hurdle, Elliott is not convinced the winner is tailor-made for that race.
“I’m not sure he’d be a World Hurdle horse on ground drier than today,” he added. “He likes to get into a rhythm, and could be taken off his feet early in a race like that.
“But, whatever he does over hurdles he’s going to be a smashing prospect over fences. When he came to me I was told to mind him this year, give him just a couple of runs, and he’d be a chaser of the future, so this is nice to win along the way.”
Prince Of Scars’ victory completed a fine double for Russell, who was also seen to great effect aboard the Andrew Lynch-trained Zabana in the Ballymaloe Foods Beginners’ Chase.
A high-class hurdler, who was just touched off in the Coral Cup at Cheltenham before finishing third behind Jezki and Hurricane Fly in the Grade 1 Ladbrokes World Series Hurdle at Punchestown, he looks set to take high rank over fences.
Never too far off the pace, he jumped well, went to the front in the straight, and had more than enough in hand to see off the late effort of the patiently ridden Blair Perrone.
In winning this race, Zabana joined an illustrious group of recent winners which includes subsequent Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Lord Windermere and 2015 runner-up Djakadam.
“We think an awful lot of him,” admitted Lynch. “He doesn’t show much at home, but when you take him to the track he’s brilliant. I have no firm plans but he should come on for that run. He’s likely to step up in trip, and will be better on better ground.”
Of beaten favourite Arctic Fire, trainer Willie Mullins said: “I don’t know that he didn’t stay, I don’t think he’d have won the race at any distance. I think we might find something amiss with him, and I’m putting a line through the run. He’ll go to the Irish Champion Hurdle next.”
Run in driving rain and into a strong headwind in the homestraight, the opening maiden hurdle demanded attrition and the Alan Fleming-trained Chain Gang showed he has it in spades as he got on top late to make a winning debut over hurdles.
A flood of money came for Road To Respect (11-4 to 8-11) and he was sent to the front from the outset. Some eight lengths clear at one point, he still held an advantage turning for home but by this point Minella Aris moved to challenge.
The latter won that battle going to the last and looked booked for victory until Adrian Heskin got a great response from Chain Gang, who clawed back the leader in the shadow of the post.
“We’re absolutely chuffed he put his head in front because it was a decent maiden hurdle,” said Fleming. “He’s extremely tough. He’s a lovely horse, and is bred to be very good over hurdles, so hopefully it’s onwards and upwards.
“I’d say up in trip or back in trip a little will be no problem, but less-testing ground would help. He’s a proper horse.”
Claimer Chris Timmons gave the Eddie Cawley-trained Forever Gold a fine ride to win the Pertemps Qualifier. Never worse than second, he was sent to the front shortly after turning for home, and ran on well to record victory at 16-1.
Whatsforuwontgobyu (10-1 to 9-2) landed a touch when taking the novice handicap hurdle for Tony Martin, JP McManus and Barry Geraghty. Out the back for much of the trip, he eased into contention in the homestraight and won with a little to spare.
Robert Tyner has enjoyed plenty of success at this meeting in the past and the Kinsale trainer was on the mark with the Derek O’Connor-trained Gurteen, who justified heavy support (10-1 to 9-4) in the bumper.
Making his bumper debut here, the five-year-old travelled particularly strongly and picked up well from off the pace to lead a furlong out. Despite idling in front, he had a length and a half to spare over easy-to-back favourite Some Neck.
Said Tyner: “We’ve always liked him, he’s a very well-bred horse. He won his point to point very easily, and got nice experience the last day (Punchestown maiden hurdle). He seemed to come on for that run. We were hoping it would rain, to loosen the ground, as he wouldn’t want it very deep. He’ll probably go back over hurdles now.”