“We’ll dream for another while,” said trainer Gordon Elliott after Don Cossack completed his racecourse preparation for the Cheltenham Gold Cup with a workmanlike performance in yesterday’s Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles.
Dropping back to two and a half miles on testing ground was never likely to bring out the best in the Gigginstown House Stud-owned gelding, but those who availed of odds of 1-8 weren’t anticipating the anxious moments along the way to an ultimately facile but seldom comfortable success.
Bryan Cooper had to resort to the persuader between the fourth and third-last, but the favourite responded well and was upsides jumping the second-last.
From there his class told, as it ought to have, and he pulled clear of the staying-on Wounded Warrior.
A relieved Elliott said: “It mightn’t have been nice to look at, but he just did what he had to do. Bryan said he hated the ground — we were worried about it coming here — and I still think he’s going to be a better horse on better ground.”
Although Elliott admitted previous concerns about his horse being ‘too free and exuberant’ in younger days, a tendency to race a little lazily has crept into the gelding’s modus operandi and the trainer revealed his star performer will have assistance when he lines up for the Gold Cup.
“We worked him the other day in cheek pieces and he flew,” he added. “We left them off him today, but he’ll have them on in the Gold Cup. There was no point putting them on him (today), we’ll keep them for Cheltenham — they’ll help him.
“Bryan said it was only from the second-last to the line that he really got running.
“Better ground and cheek pieces will suit, and the Gold Cup has always been the plan.
“Whether or not he’s good enough to win it I don’t know, but he was a better horse in the second half of last season and I think he will be again this year.”
The dream is, indeed, alive for the Elliott stable, but bookmakers were unconvinced by the victory, some choosing to leave his Cheltenham Gold Cup odds unchanged at around the 5-1 mark, others deciding to extend them to 6-1.
Cooper was reasonably satisfied, insisting March 18 is the only day that matters.
He said: “He got the job done, he’s come back in trip, which isn’t ideal as he has turned into more of a stayer.
“He won this last year when he probably had a bit more speed, we’ve been training him to stay so he’s come back half a mile too short.
“What I liked is when I jumped the second-last, two or three slaps on the shoulder and he went on.
“There’s only one big day, though, and that’s March and that’s what we’re aiming for.”
Don Cossack’s victory completed a double for Elliott, after Westend Star had landed a tidy punt with a smooth success in the WT O’Grady Novice Hurdle.
Available, fleetingly, at 5-2 on Wednesday night, he was sent off the 4-5 favourite, and delivered with the minimum of fuss.
Deposed market leader Monbeg Rose set out to make all but jumped untidily and was beaten turning for home, where stable companion Arkwrisht took over.
However, Westend Star, ridden by Barry Geraghty, soon loomed large, and sprinted away late to win by a wide margin.
The maiden hurdle which opens this card hasn’t been especially kind to punters in recent years, with a 66-1 winner in 2015 and current Gold Cup favourite Djakadam falling at the last in the 2013 renewal, won by 20-1 chance Kilmainham.
Yesterday’s running provided no respite, with Rooster Byron pleasantly surprising his trainer, Paul Nolan, when returning odds of 33-1, in the hands of Robbie Power.
Never far off the pace, the well-bred sort, carrying the colours of former Irish Hennessy winner Joncol, moved to the front early in the straight and battled strongly to deny Never Again.
The disappointment of the race was odds-on favourite Indien Rouge, who reached for the third-last and, soon afterwards, backpedalled rapidly.
Diamond Cauchois made a winning start in Ireland when taking the Matty Ryan Memorial Handicap Hurdle for Sue Bramall and jockey Andrew Ring.
The lightly raced five-year-old travelled strongly to challenge off the last bend, and found plenty to see off Followmeuptocarlow.
The most valuable race of the day was the Grade Two Ocovango Coolmore National Hunt Sire Mares’ Novice Chase, and victory in an eventful contest went to the Pat Fahy-trained Aunt Nora.
British raider and odds-on favourite Bitofapuzzle was to the fore from the outset and still very much in command until getting in too tight at the third-last, and sending Noel Fehily flying out of the saddle.
That left Queens Wild in front, and she looked in command for much of the home-straight.
However, Aunt Nora picked up steadily from the turn for home and, despite being ponderous on the approach to the last, got up late snatch victory, at odds of 33-1.
“We came here hoping to get some black type, and thankfully it worked out,” said Fahy. “The trip was short for her and even though Queens Wild was well in front I knew my mare would stay as she wants three miles.
“She’ll get time to recover from this and we’ll look for another mares’ race somewhere.”
Tom Hogan’s Coolnagorna Giggs, ridden by Fehily, earned a return to the winner’s enclosure when getting the better of Flysini at the end of the two-mile-six handicap chase.
The only drama in the concluding Arctic Tack Stud Hunters’ Chase came at the final fence, where the strong-travelling odds-on favourite Two Rockers jumped high and pitched on landing.
Ridden by Finny Maguire for his parents, Adrian and Sabrina, the gelding recovered quickly, and galloped away from the challenging Carrigeen Acebo.
“He jumped well, and Finny gave him a great ride,” said Maguire Snr. “I think horse and jockey probably just fell asleep turning in, but recovered well and quickened well.
“He’s a good horse, has a good engine, and we’ll go to Leopardstown now and see how he gets on there (before deciding on whether or not to go to Cheltenham).”
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