The two, both returning from more than a year and a half on the sideline and whose Cheltenham successes were over drastically different distances, met over an intermediate trip, in the listed two-mile-six Boomerang Horse & Country Store Chase, and it was the grey neck of Champagne Fever which stretched out enough to deny his determined challenger.
Keen early and exuberant in his jumping, with just one exception, he would have been forgiven had his early enthusiasm proved his downfall in the closing stages, but the now nine-year-old showed time off has not dimmed his spirit, and battled on bravely to hold a determined effort from Lord Windermere.
Willie Mullins, who teamed up with Ruby Walsh to complete a near 8-1 treble on the day, was delighted, but not inclined to get carried away.
“He ran a good race for his first run back, but he always runs well first run back,” he said.
“We’ll probably look for a similar type of race, perhaps over two and a half miles. The John Durkan might come too soon, and we might look for something easier than that, maybe back here or at Clonmel.
“He was a bit keen early, and that’s why I might come back in trip. I thought two-six, on today’s ground, was as much as he wants, even though we were trying to make a stayer out of him. We have got him to stay in the past, but I’m not sure it agrees with him.
“We’re hoping he’ll be a bit like Ballycasey, but we’re just rejuvenating him. I don’t know if I could see him being competitive at Grade One level.”
Champagne Fever has been cut to 25-1 for the Champion Chase and to the same price for the Ryanair Chase, while runner-up Lord Windermere is down to 20, from 33, for the Welsh National.
An appetite for jumping a fence, and a willing attitude to boot, were more than enough to see Mullins’ Bellow Mome home in front in the opening race, the Jim Murphy Contract Fence Builder Beginners’ Chase.
A lightly raced and decent hurdler, the five-year-old looks set to take higher rank over the larger obstacles, following a smart debut in which he jumped fluently, and picked up well under Ruby Walsh, to see off favourite General Principle.
“I’ll have to look for a ‘winners of one’, or step up to a graded race,” said Mullins. “I always thought he’d be better on this ground, and yet he was able to win on heavy, so I’m looking forward to him in the spring time, when it really dries out.”
Mullins and Walsh completed their lot with Augusta Kate, who is Boylesports’ new favourite for the Mares’ Novice Hurdle at the Cheltenham following a smooth transition to hurdling, in the two-mile-seven Sportsmens Mares’ Maiden.
A long odds-on favourite to make a winning start, she was a little keen early, but never looked like anything other than the winner as she jumped fluently, eased to the lead late on, and coasted home clear of Ask Susan.
“She jumped nicely, and I didn’t think the trip would be any problem to her, even though I don’t like starting them off at that sort of a trip,” said Mullins. “We’ll step her up nicely in class around Christmas, try to find a nice novice race for her.”
Asked if she could drop back in trip, he replied: “Easily. It was a mares’ maiden on a nice track, and we decided to let her take her chance. If I can I’ll keep her to mares’ races, but I have a nice few mares and the plan is to keep them apart.”
The application of a tongue tie certainly did no harm for Billy’s Hope, who got on top late to overhaul long-time leader and easy-to-back favourite Dounikos in the rated novice hurdle.
The Fogarty Concrete Novice Handicap Hurdle became a family affair as Catcheragain made all the running and quickened up nicely from the back of the last to see off favourite Canny Tom.
The 7-1 chance was saddled by in-form trainer Tom Mullins, owned by his wife, Helen, and ridden by their son, David.
There are few rewards for consistency in this game, but it was hard to begrudge Neddyvaughan, ridden by Mark Walsh for trainer Christy Roche, his breakthrough success in the Horse & Jockey Handicap.
A strong traveller, on numerous occasion this season he has looked the winner, only to be run out of it late. But the drop back to two miles worked the oracle as he moved with his customary style, and had plenty in reserve to see off favourite Broughtons Star.
After three runner-up finishes earlier in the day, Gordon Elliott’s luck changed in the bumper with Woods Well. But it came as something of a surprise to the winning trainer, who revealed: “I have never had a horse working so badly before running in a bumper, but he must be the type that keeps it for the track.”
A maiden hurdle beckons the imposing gelding, who benefitted from a clever yet uncomplicated ride by Luke McGuinness.