Barry Geraghty was once again the star of the show at Leopardstown today as he took the two most valuable races of the afternoon courtesy of Essex and Newmill.
Essex, the 5-1 favourite, landed the featured Pierse Hurdle and could now bid for a big double in the Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury on February 12.
There was a scare for the horse’s supporters, however, as he nearly threw away a winning lead.
The unexposed five-year-old had been up with the pace for much of the valuable two-mile contest before Geraghty pushed him clear turning for home.
Essex, trained by Naas-based Michael O’Brien, bounded clear and looked like turning the 130,000 event into a procession, but he appeared to idle approaching the last flight.
Mansony had moved out of the chasing pack and nearly drew alongside the leader, but Essex pulled out more on the run-in and was a length clear at the line, with Al Eile some way back in third and Adamant Approach fourth.
“He won the Irish Cesarewitch over two miles on the Flat, so I knew he would get home today,” Geraghty told At The Races.
“He just idled at the last, but as soon as Philip Carberry (on Mansony) came to me, he picked up and had plenty in the tank by the time he got to the line.”
O’Brien added: “The horse wears cheek-pieces because he is inclined to look around. He was in front too long and nearly threw it away at the last.
“It is a very hard race to win, and I have been trying for years to win it.
“The plan is to go for the Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury.”
Cashmans quote Essex the 8-1 favourite for the big handicap hurdle, while he has been clipped to 25-1 from 33s for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle.
When asked about whether the horse was good enough for the Champion, Geraghty said: “It is hard to say. He is a handy horse and is only rising five, so whatever he does this year will be a bonus for next year.”
Newmill initiated the rider’s double when he ran out a tired winner of the Paddy Fitzpatrick Memorial Novice Chase.
Tom O’Leary’s charge, one of the best novice hurdlers in Ireland last season, travelled well throughout the Grade Two contest behind pace-setter Strong Project.
The leader was far from fluent at the third-last fence and Geraghty decided to kick for home.
The 100-30 shot was quickly clear, but started to tire after the last fence and had just enough in reserve to hold off the renewed challenge of Strong Project by two lengths.
The 7-4 favourite Keepatem was never travelling particularly well but kept on to take third in the two-mile-five-furlong contest.
“He ran very free here last time, when he was fifth, and never gave himself a breather,” said O’Leary.
“We might come back for the Dr P J Moriarty Novice Chase on Irish Hennessy day.
“If he goes to Cheltenham, it will be for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase, but I want to do the right thing by the horse.”
Marcus Du Berlais took the valuable Pierse Leopardstown Handicap Chase after benefiting from a confident ride from Barry Cash.
The grey was settled in mid-division for much of the three-mile race and cruised into contention alongside leader The Galway Man with three fences to go.
Cash was still hard on the steel aboard Arthur Moore’s eight-year-old approaching the last, but had to get busy to repel a number of challengers building up behind.
Marcus Du Berlais responded quickly to his urgings and the 13-2 shot bounded away, finishing a cosy four lengths clear of early leader Hersov.
Moore said afterwards:“I am delighted with the performance, and Barry gave him a great ride.
“He was a fresh horse, having not run here since Christmas. The long-term aim is for the Irish Grand National, as he was second in it last year.
“This is compensation for that.”
Smart chaser Cloudy Bays (5-1 favourite) continued his terrific season when reverting to timber to land the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle (Qualifier)
As is his custom, the chestnut made nearly all the running under Andrew McNamara, who partnered him to his victory at Tramore earlier in the month, and he repelled all-comers to finish six lengths in front of Christmas River.
Tom Taafe unleashed a very interesting type in the last race of the day when Finger Onthe Pulse took the Pierse Civil Engineering (Pro-Am) Flat Race.
Taafe won the same race in 2002 with King George VI Chase winner Kicking King, and as well as bearing a resemblance to that horse, 4-1 shot Finger Onthe Pulse carries the same purple and white colours of Conor Clarkson.
The four-year-old responded well to Jamie Codd’s drive on his racecourse debut, beating Kinger Rocks by a length and a half.