Hopes were high for his sole Prestbury Park runner. Unlike Irish Gold Cup day at Leopardstown, conditions were perfect. Lynch dared to dream. Then the dream turned into a nightmare. After an initial false start, Zabana was side-on as the tape was raised and, following a collision with Outlander, he unseated Davy Russell as he whipped round. Race over before it had even begun.
The horse seemed to feel the same level of deflation as his connections. A tilt at the Ryanair Gold Cup on Easter Sunday was pondered before being abandoned due to Zabana’s gloomy mood. It wasn’t until the last three weeks that his mojo returned.
Going into yesterday’s Grade One Growise Champion Novice Chase on day one of the Punchestown Festival Lynch dared to dream again.
The first fence brought an unwanted scare as Zabana, sent off at 7/2, pecked on landing. He recovered quickly though, bowling along in front for Russell until the fourth last when the riderless Ballychorus ran across the field.
For a moment Lynch feared yet more misfortune but the danger passed and Zabana powered home two lengths clear of Cheltenham tormentor Outlander.
Redemption tasted sweet but couldn’t compensate entirely for Cheltenham.
“My heart just sunk at Cheltenham,” admitted Lynch. “I never brought a horse to a race in such form. Cheltenham was his day but it didn’t happen. You’d love to do it there but it’s good to do it here too.
“After Cheltenham he seemed to sulk and went off everything, but in the last three weeks he came right. He wants that ground and is a really good horse.
“He over-jumped the first one and went out on his head and he missed one just before they went down the back but he got the rest of them right.
“We’ll let him off for the summer now and make a man of him. He’s only seven and we could perhaps start him in the John Durkan Chase next season.”
Russell said: “There was plenty of hassle with the loose horse, but when I let him roll along he jumped great.
“When we went to Cheltenham, we were thinking he was going to run a big race and this win today justifies that. He loved the bit of nicer ground and he stayed well on it.”
Winning owner Chris Jones added: “I’m delighted for everyone and it’s a dream come true. “It’s just so hard to win a Grade One. They’re not easy to win so to win on a big day like this is really special. The Cheltenham thing was a low point, but to come back from that and for it all to fall into place was great. I’m thrilled.”
It was a less thrilling afternoon for Willie Mullins with the master of Closutton forced to wait until Cilaos Emery did the business in the final race of day one to get off the mark.
Earlier Mullins had seen hotpots Yorkhill and Vautour turned over in the Champion Novice Hurdle and the BoyleSports Champion Chase respectively.
Those reverses perhaps provided evidence that Mullins’ ultimately unsuccessful bid to wrest the British Champion trainers’ crown form Paul Nicholls’ grasp may have come at a price.
Most years Mullins bypasses Aintree to keep his Cheltenham heroes for Punchestown. But the possibility of becoming the first Irish based British Champion trainer since Vincent O’Brien in 1954 meant this year the lure of Liverpool was impossible to resist.
Yorkhill was one of six winners at Aintree but his exertions there left a mark with the jaded 4/9 favourite trailing in fourth behind Don’t Touch It.
In hindsight, Vautour’s fall at Aintree was the moment that did for Mullins’ championship dreams and, like his stablemate, he failed to sparkle yesterday, finishing second to God’s Own.
And when Zabana thwarted Outlander, it meant Mullins can’t now equal or beat the tally of 10 wins from 12 Grade Ones posted a year ago.
For a man with such a relentless drive to improve, that will hurt. Not that he was entirely surprised.
“We thought with what we were doing in England that the horses could run a little bit flat and a few of them did,” Mullins said. “Yorkhill ran very flat, Petit Mouchoir ran well while two miles is probably a little too sharp for Vautour at this stage of the season. I imagine we’ll go back up in trip with him next season.”
While Mullins was cursing his look, Nicky Henderson was in jubilant mood after the rarely-sighted Simonsig finished third in the Champion Chase.
“It was a fantastic performance,” Henderson said. “It was only the fourth steeplechase of his life and he wouldn’t have seen a fence in anger in three years, so it was a good start!
“Barry (Geraghty) thought he had a squeak turning for home, but a lack of fitness was bound to tell at the end of the day and it did on the run-in.”
Henderson’s smile may have been broad but the day belonged to the Zabana team.