Willie Mullins unleashed another potential champion bumper contender as Fiveforthree bolted in by seven lengths at Punchestown to receive quotes of 12-1 for the Cheltenham contest from Ladbrokes and William Hill.
The five-year-old grey, a half-brother to Hennessy Gold Cup winner Celestial Gold, travelled smoothly throughout for Katie Walsh and soon had the Rockview (Q.R.) INH Flat Race in the bag.
Sent off the 9-4 favourite, Walsh was never far from the pace and never had an anxious moment before moving to join the leaders two furlongs from home.
Walsh asked her mount to quicken and he did so in grand style to force his way into Mullins’ Festival plans.
He is available at 14-1 with Cork-based Cashmans, with stable companion Mad Fish the 8-1 second-favourite behind 6-1 market leader Cork All Star.
“He looks a smart sort,” said Mullins. “He hadn’t shown a lot before Christmas, but has improved immensely in last few weeks. He can only improve on that.
“We’ll see what happens in the next few weeks with regards to the Cheltenham team.
“At the moment it looks like this fellow and Mad Fish will be heading there (for the bumper).
“I want to run Mad Fish again beforehand, but I’m not going to run him in heavy ground again.”
Wins Now was given a quote of 25-1 by VC Bet for the Anglo Irish Bank Supreme Novices’ Hurdle after a smooth two and a half length success in the Irish National Hunt Festival Novice Hurdle.
Sent off the 2-1 favourite after winning his last two starts at Cork and Navan, he was given a very confident ride by Niall ’Slippers’ Madden, riding for his father, ’Boots’
Michael O’Brien’s Montana Bay (4-1) led the field into the straight, with Eamonn Sheehy’s Holly Tree (5-2) looking the biggest danger.
However, ’Slippers’ refused to panic and waited until the second-last flight before asking his mount for everything and the JP McManus-owned son of Croco Rouge picked up in great style.
The disappointment of the race was Edward O’Grady’s Medicinal, who had been well-touted beforehand but faded tamely to finish seventh of the eight runners.
Cashmans handed the winner a 33-1 quote for the Festival opener.
Madden senior said: “He has an entry in the Supreme, but we’ll see as there are piles of races here for him.
“He handles heavy ground well, but ’Slippers’ said the ground was a bit dead for him today.
“He gave him a very confident ride and he won well. He’s a smart horse and will make a lovely chaser next year. He’s a big horse, about 17 hands, the perfect build for a chaser.”
McManus had a 26-1 double on the day when Fourball (8-1) won the Festival Shopping Village Handicap Hurdle for Christy Roche and Alan Crowe.
Wheresben landed the International Pavilion At The Festival Hurdle for another father-son combination in Seamus and John Fahey.
The two-and-a-half-mile contest had a handful of useful staying chasers in the field, including Pearly Jack, Livingstonebramble, Silver Birch and Black Apalachi.
But 7lb amateur Fahey managed to hold off the determined challenge of Oliver Brady’s Baron De Feypo by half a length to land odds of 9-2.
Pearly Jack ran an eye-catching race in third for Davy Fitzgerald and would have been primed for the Festival but returned with a nasty gash to a leg and plans are now on hold.
Former Welsh National winner Silver Birch was a fine fourth for Gordon Elliott with the Aintree National in mind.
Knocknabooly (8-1) returned to the winner’s enclosure for the first time since winning on his racecourse debut in a bumper in 2004.
Sixth behind Total Enjoyment in the championship event in that sphere at Prestbury Park, he has been beset by problems in the interim but came back to form with a vengeance in division one of the Festival Hospitality Maiden Hurdle, recording an eight-length success.
The second division was won by Colm Murphy’s Barcardero (evens favourite), despite a mistake at the last.
The winner had beaten subsequent Northumberland Plate winner Toldo at Ripon in June but was all out to beat Step Outside (20-1) by a short-head at the line after travelling well to the final flight.
Druids Castle gained a resolute success under Barry Geraghty in the opening Book Your Festival Tickets Hurdle for Joe Crowley.
After taking up the running with half a mile to go, he grimly held off the challenges of first Oodachee, trained by Charlie Swan, and latterly Powerstation, second to Black Jack Ketchum at the Cheltenham Festival last year.
“There is a chance he could go for the Ballymore Properties Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival, we’ll see how he comes out of this first,” said Crowley.
“The owners both live in England and they’ll probably want to run. He’s going chasing next year, though.”