Quel Esprit booked his Cheltenham ticket when making virtually all the running to give Willie Mullins an eighth victory in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown.
Backed down to 5-4 favourite from 7-4, Ruby Walsh kept the eight-year-old up to his work to hold Roberto Goldback by two lengths, with outsider Treacle staying on stoutly to claim third place from Follow The Plan.
Quel Esprit, a faller at Leopardstown and Cheltenham in his novice season and also brought down at Punchestown, had cut out much of the early pace with Bostons Angel and China Rock in close attendance.
There was little change in the order until the fourth-last fence where Magnanimity made a bad mistake that put paid to his chance.
China Rock looked a big danger but his effort had petered out by the final fence and it was left to Roberto Goldback to stage a challenge, but Quel Esprit and Walsh had matters firmly under control.
Mullins said: “This has been a lucky race for me. That’s Ruby’s first Hennessy for me.
“He gallops and jumps all day. Things fell apart for him last year and he disappointed and surprised us when he fell because he is a good jumper.
“He had a wind operation during the summer and maybe that was the difference, when he was coming under pressure last year in those big races his wind might have been catching him.
“He galloped all the way to the line today and jumped. Ruby was keen to make use of his jumping. He jumped fantastic, especially over the last four.
“That was the key to winning the race. He wasn’t afraid to ask him for big ones.
“He didn’t let the pace drop at any stage during the race and kept stretching them with his jumping. They went a real good gallop and his jumping won it for him.
“He made one mistake down the back, but other than that his jumping was magnificent.
“He has a huge long stride and now that he has confidence in his jumping he looks a Grade One horse. He’s putting it all together at last.
“I’ve been aiming him for the (Cheltenham) Gold Cup all year. He’s probably around a 25-1 shot for it, (but) seldom in your life do you have a horse good enough to compete in that race.
“When you get one you take it and the Gold Cup throws up surprises over the years. I hope I can improve him a bit more between now and then.”
Walsh said: “He jumped well, he travelled well. We went a really good gallop and it was a good performance.
“He likes to go a really good gallop. He was unlucky when he fell in his races last year. When we schooled the novices 18 months ago he was the best jumper.
“He’s probably a 160 horse which leaves him 14lb behind Long Run and Kauto Star. They are in the mid 170s. He has another stone to improve to win a Cheltenham Gold Cup.
“There are other races than that and this is a huge pot and a great race in its own right.
“Willie thinks he’s entitled to run in the Gold Cup. He’s won a Hennessy so he has to run in the Gold Cup.
“I was fairly confident jumping the third-last and when what I thought was China Rock ranged alongside me two out I had plenty of horse left and I was very happy there.”
Stan James cut Quel Esprit to 20-1 from 25-1s for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup, with spokesman Joseph Burke saying: “He might not be an obvious choice, but he is improving and if you’re not in, you can’t win.”
Betfred went 14-1 from 20s and spokesman George Primarolo said: “Quel Esprit’s Hennessy victory is unlikely to give the connections of Long Run and Kauto Star any sleepless nights but he deserves to have a crack at the Gold Cup and it’s not inconceivable that he could run into a place.”