The Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial Chase proved a major anti-climax in Punchestown yesterday as the Willie Mullins-trained Arvika Ligeonniere coasted to an effortless nine lengths win over 2011 winner Rubi Light.
After Flemenstar was withdrawn, having been found to be lame, with “inflammation and swelling” on Saturday, only three went to post, two of the trained by Willie Mullins, who was in Hong Kong for the weekend.
Ireland’s highest-rated chaser Sir Des Champs, a stable-companion of the winner, was in front early, but had been headed when he crashed out of the race at the third fence, taking a heavy fall and leaving Davy Russell sore and forced to miss his later rides, including a winner, Bright New Dawn.
The exit of Sir Des Champs left Arvika Ligeonniere with only Rubi Light to beat and the 4/7 favourite was never threatened. He jumped spectacularly (except for one mistake in the back straight) and had his rival in trouble as they turned to face the second last.
Arvika Ligeonniere, recording his fourth Grade 1 success over fences, winged the last two fences and won, hard held, by nine lengths, prompting Ruby Walsh to comment: “It was very unlike Sir Des Champs to fall and unfortunate he went so early. But that’s racing.
“My horse was good. He settled lovely and jumped great, except for the first down the back. He has loads of pace and a great cruising speed, qualities that would be given away by going up in trip. I’d say he should be coming back in trip, rather than stepping-up.”
Patrick Mullins, deputising for his absent father, added: “Sir Des Champs is fine and that’s the main thing. He’ll go for the Lexus, if all is well in the morning and it’s a long way to March!
“Arvika Ligeonniere is in the King George and Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase. And, if Ruby is talking about bringing him back in trip, the Leopardstown race is probably where he’ll go. Although he’s better going right-handed, he has won a Grade 1 around there.”
The big-race winner was the first leg of a double for both Mullins and Walsh, the champion-trainer’s brace being completed when the well-regarded 4/7 favourite Black Hercules made a successful debut, bringing the Closutton yard’s weekend haul to nine after five winners on Saturday and a double in Cork yesterday.
Having made most of the running, Black Hercules stayed on dourly under pressure to beat Cillian’s Return by two and a half lengths.
Patrick Mullins, who with his cousin Emmet prepared the gelding for his only point-to-point before selling him to the Wylies, commented:, “I’ve never been under pressure like that before, even when I rode the favourite Cousin Vinny in the Supreme Novices. I would have been gutted if he got beaten.
“But I’m delighted with him. He got a bit of a knock turning for home but galloped away well. I think he’d win a winners bumper, no bother, even if he might lack a gear compared to horses like Shaneshill. But he’s a beautiful horse for the future, a real stayer.”
Ruby Walsh completed his double when giving the Robert Tyner-trained 5/2 favourite Daring Article a vintage ride to gain a last-gasp victory over front-running Canaly in the Weatherbys Ireland Handicap Chase.
Struggling with five fences to jump Daring Article, making his seasonal debut, still looked held jumping the last but finished with a flourish to triumph by a head. Mary Tyner nominated Leopardsytown’s Paddy Power Chase as the winner’s next assignment, if he gets into the race.
Bryan Cooper, rider of Canaly, had earlier provided his boss Dessie Hughes with a double on Apache Jack and Bright New Dawn, a spare ride picked up after Davy Russell was stood down in the wake of Sir Des Champs’ fall.
Bright New Dawn, making his eagerly-awaited chasing bow, made all and dug deep on the run-in when tackled by the Ruby Walsh-ridden four-year-old Dogora to score by a half length.
Hughes said: “He always looked like a chaser, but it’s nice to see him go and do it. That was a good performance for his first run, giving the second horse 12lb. He’ll go for the Grade 1 three-miler at Leopardstown over Christmas (the Topaz Novice Chase).”
The Hughes/Cooper double had been initiated when Apache Jack, another 5/4 favourite, outstayed his rivals in the 2014 Annual Membership Maiden Hurdle, beating Shemshal by twelve lengths.
His trainer commented: “He has a staying pedigree and is a real three-miler, just like his brother Black Jack Ketchum. Hopefully, he’ll be able to compete in the graded novice races in the spring, over two miles and six or three miles.”
The Gigginstown colours, worn by the exciting Bright New Dawn, were also successful in the opener when Davy Russell gave the Charlie Swan-trained The Game Changer a confident ride to beat Clonard Lad, outpacing his rival on the run-in.
“It was a messy sort of a race and we didn’t learn a lot, but it showed he has ability,” was Swan’s summing-up of the race, “He’s like his brother Johns Spirit and travels well in his races. But he’s a bit of character at home and doesn’t like being in front too long. I suppose we’ll have to step him up now and we’ll look for something over Christmas, or after.”
On another bleak day for the bookmakers, with six favourites obliging at Punchestown, 7/2 market-leader Sullane Chief, trained in County Waterford by Pat O’Connor and confidently handled by Conor Walsh,. proved an emphatic win over the gambled-on Off The Charts in the Punchestown For Events Handicap Hurdle.
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