Outlander has had a busy first half of the season, in which he hadn’t enjoyed the best of luck, most notably when falling at the last fence when having the Clonmel Oil Chase at his mercy. But he possesses a tenacity which stood him in good stead at the end of a tough race.
There were five horses still in contention racing down to the final fence, but the 11-1 chance, despite being unproven over three miles, found most to see off the challenges of a rejuvenated Don Poli, Djakadam and Valseur Lido.
“It was touch and go as whether we’d run him – we were going to go to Tramore,” revealed Elliott. “But with the ground drying out we said we’d come here instead, so it was great.
“He didn’t surprise me at all, to be honest. He was only a length and a half behind Djakadam the last day, one jump was the difference between winning and losing.”
In a year of firsts for the winning trainer – first Gold Cup, Galway Plate, Munster National and Kerry National – this was a significant result in his quest for a first trainers’ title. But it was also a landmark first for the man on top, Jack Kennedy, whose reputation grows by the race.
“It’s great for Jack, that’s his hundredth winner as a jockey and his first Grade 1,” said Elliott. “He’s a big part of the team at home, and he’s my man, I’m trying to bring him along, so it’s great. I’m delighted for him.”
As well as being a bloody good trainer, Elliott knows how to celebrate, and a second consecutive night of revelry was high on the agenda following this success.
“We won a big race yesterday, and I was bold enough last night, when I had a few too many, so I’ll probably have to have a few again tonight. I apologise to everyone I abused last night, but they’ll probably get it again tonight,” he joked.
Although only 17, jockey Jack Kennedy has long been on the radar as a star of the future, and this was just another step on the road to what, with luck, will be a stellar career.
Said the Dingle teenager: “He ran a great race the last day, when just a length and a quarter behind Djakadam, and I was fairly lucky Bryan (Cooper) chose Valseur Lido. My horse travelled well, jumped well, and didn’t miss a beat.
“They went a nice auld gallop, and I was happy enough with him all the way. We crept into it, got there going to the last, but I was worried we were in front too soon – it was lonely enough on the run-in, but he dug deep.”
Despite having to settle for third place in the feature, owners Rich and Susannah Ricci continue to enjoy a strike-rate of over fifty percent with their national hunt runners this season in Ireland, and Vroum Vroum Mag, whose winning streak for connections was interrupted by a short head defeat in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, got back to winning ways with victory in the Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle.
The fall of stablemate and long-time leader Shaneshill, when still upsides at the last, left some question marks, but perhaps the biggest puzzle of all is which race she will run in at the Cheltenham Festival.
Bookmaker Paddy Power priced up that particular market, installing the World Hurdle the 8-11 favourite, with a defence of her Mares’ Hurdle crown an appealing 5-4. It’s 10-1 she runs in the Champion, and 25s any other race at the meeting.
After travelling well and not picking up as well as might have been expected, there remains a slight question mark about her suitability to the three-mile trip, but winning rider Ruby Walsh does not share such concerns, having felt she was “idling” when left in front.
“She jumped super, and had the Shaneshill covered going to the last, but I just didn’t want to commit her - that’s all,” said Walsh. “She was just idling (when she hit the front).”
Her trainer, Willie Mullins, was delighted with the run, but, having been surprised by one particular aspect of the performance, was not keen to commit her to any specific target for the reminder of the season.
“She did something today I never saw her do before: she pulled too hard,” said Mullins. “She always falls asleep in a race and that’s why we had notions of going out to three miles with her.
“I’d certainly have to think about it (her trip) because she was very keen today. But Ruby thought he will be able to switch her off when he wants to. Maybe in a race at Cheltenham, where they’ be going at more pace, they’d settle better.
“She’s extraordinary. She works with our Champion Hurdle horses, we know she can go three miles now. Ruby didn’t set out to settle her today – we didn’t think there was any need.
“At the moment, everything is an option - we’re not nominating anything. She’s the super-sub in the Ricci team and that’s the way she’ll be campaigned.”
Mullins enjoyed another great day at Leopardstown, with four winners, which could have been five had Isleofhopendreams not been slow at the last in the Pertemps Qualifier, won by the Jim Culloty-trained Electric Concorde, in the hands of David Mullins.
The market told us the Mullins-Walsh partnership would be hard to beat in the opening maiden hurdle and so it proved. Despite a slow pace, racing keenly and being “further back than you’d ideally like in a maiden hurdle”, Walsh felt it was a good effort from Montalbano, who picked up well to beat Youcannotbeserious.
The market was also a pointer to expectation in the Ballymaloe Foods Beginners’ Chase as Mullins’ Bleu Et Rouge justified heavy support, despite not being fluent on his first start over fences. Barry Geraghty was at his brilliant best aboard the JP McManus-owned gelding, allowing him time during an indifferent round of jumping, before galvanising him for one telling run.
The McManus colours were back in the winner’s enclosure following the Christmas Novice Handicap Hurdle, as the Jessica Harrington-trained, Robbie Power-ridden Thirsty Work outbattled easy-to-back favourite Tudor City.
And those of the 16,722 crowd who waited to watch the bumper, were treated to a nice performance by the highly regarded Carter McKay. The 1-2 chance completed a 9-1 Leopardstown four-timer for Mullins, who was also on the mark in the Limerick opener.
Carter McKay will head for a winners’ bumper and, that going to plan, will likely head across the water for the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham.