There was drama throughout but none so vivid as the feature event in which reigning champ Carlingford Lough traded at 1000 on the exchanges before galloping to a wide-margin victory for Waterford trainer John Kiely and jockey Mark Walsh.
From last of 10, some 25 lengths off the pace, jumping the second-last to a 12-length victory, Gold Cup successes don’t come much more improbable than this
The JP McManus-owned horse, who gave AP McCoy a Grade One victory the day after he announced his retirement on this weekend last year, could, with justification, have been pulled up.
But he picked up in tremendous style and, when the strong-travelling Valseur Lido decanted Ruby Walsh at the back of the final fence, he stormed past easy-to-back favourite Road To Riches to win going away.
“He was in good form, but his form (on the track this season) wasn’t great and the race looked very good, so I just hoped he’d be in the first four,” admitted Kiely.
“I told Mark to do exactly what he did: Ride him to finish as close as he could.
“At the pace they were going he thought he mightn’t get home, but it worked. If he had gone into the race sooner, he wouldn’t have finished.
"The theory works out now and again. He was always a decent horse, but I thought he had not come through the year as well as he has.
“It’s lucky to win that race again — it doesn’t happen too often — and it’s lovely for Mark, because he had done a lot of the groundwork.”
The winner, who went to Cheltenham on the back of a less-surprising victory in this race last year, failed to land a blow in the Gold Cup.
A return, for what is potentially a stronger renewal, would likely offer a similar result.
The Grand National, however, which owner JP McManus’ racing manager Frank Berry suggested ‘may be the right race for him’, is a very interesting option and his odds for that race were halved, to 25-1.
Road To Riches, third in last season’s Gold Cup, was pushed out to 20-1 for his return visit, while the unfortunate Valseur Lido had his odds cut to the same price.
The Triumph Hurdle market took a pounding following the Grade One Spring Juvenile Hurdle, won by 14-1 chance Footpad, whose trainer Willie Mullins would complete a hat-trick of Grade One successes on the day.
The winner benefited from a patient ride and well-timed challenge from Danny Mullins.
Driven to the front before the last hurdle, he stayed on nicely to beat stable companions Allblak Des Places and Let’s Dance, with odds-on favourite and Triumph Hurdle ante-post favourite Ivanovich Gorbatov back in fourth.
“That was what we thought he was capable of when we saw him in Auteuil last year,” said Mullins. “He looked a fair sort then, and hopefully he can go on from here.”
Even allowing for his trainer’s enthusiasm, Footpad looks well suited to demanding conditions and confirming that form on likely better ground at Cheltenham may prove a difficult task.
Allblak Des Places stepped up considerably on his maiden victory at Fairyhouse but had no obvious excuse.
Third-placed Let’s Dance, who looked well beaten when making a mistake at the last, stayed on again with some purpose, and will relish a greater test, which she should get in the Triumph Hurdle.
Her odds for that race lengthened just a touch, to 16-1 in a place, but she remains a contender.
The same comment should apply to Ivanovich Gorbatov, who wasn’t seen to best effect on the bad ground. Not given a hard time when the front three forged clear late on, he drifted to 10-1 for the Triumph but was the subject of plenty of support yesterday afternoon and is again as short as 5-1 (7s available).
Although Bellshill disappointed in the Grade One Deloitte Novice Hurdle, Mullins had an able deputy in Bleu Et Rouge.
Carrying the colours of JP McManus, the 11-1 chance hit the front approaching the last, and found plenty for pressure from jockey Barry Geraghty to see off Tombstone, with the off-colour Bellshill back in third.
“He ran a cracker here at Christmas, and was open to improvement,” said Mullins.
“I thought he was green coming to the last, but once he got down to racing he was good.
“The trip in the Neptune wouldn’t be any problem to him. It was hard work, very testing ground out there, so we can safely say he stays very well.”
As big as 66-1 pre-race for his intended target, he is now as short as 8-1 (16-1 available).
In light of Bellshill’s sub-par display, ante-post favourite Yanworth is odds-on with many firms, and no bigger than 11-10.
Of the beaten favourite, whose odds lengthened to 10-1, Mullins admitted: “I don’t know how good he is compared with the winner, but he cut out too quick for my liking, so I think we might find a problem.
“I thought he made the running at a sensible gallop. I know he reached for one down the back, and that may have taken a bit of the powder out of him, but it was still disappointing.”
The third of Mullins’ three Grade One wins came in the Flogas Novice Chase, won by the heavily supported Outlander, under Bryan Cooper.
Unbeaten in two previous starts over fences, the seven-year-old was settled behind stablemate Pont Alexandre for much of the trip and moved up going best turning for home.
In front jumping the last, he was left clear when his companion made a bad mistake and, despite idling, raced home comfortably clear of Monksland.
The JLT Novice Chase, for which yet another stable companion, Killultagh Vic, heads the market, is his likely target.
“I’m very happy with him. He idles a bit in front, as he showed again, but I never mind that — if they’re idling they’ve got a bit up their sleeve,” said Mullins.
“I thought he could go either way (JLT or RSA Chase), and whichever they (owners Gigginstown House Stud) prefer I’ll be happy because he’s in good order. I’d imagine they’ll want to keep them separate (Outlander and No More Heroes).”
Of Killultagh Vic, Mullins added: “He seems to be showing more speed than he had been. I thought at one time he was just a three-mile horse, but over fences he seems to be a faster horse.”