And then there were two. There won’t be any public declaration of abandonment but it seems clear Bryan Cooper’s choice of Cheltenham Gold Cup mounts is now between the two Dons — Cossack and Poli — after Road To Riches disappointed at Leopardstown on Saturday.
The Irish Gold Cup was supposed to the race where 5/4 favourite Road To Riches proved his credentials for the big one at Cheltenham next month.
That was the theory.
The reality was an emphatic 12-length defeat to Carlingford Lough.
Road To Riches would even have had to settle for third had the smooth travelling Valseur Lido not blundered at the last, unshipping Ruby Walsh in the process to deny Willie Mullins a clean sweep of all four Grade Ones on Irish Gold Cup day.
By that stage, Road To Riches was legless, paying a heavy price for racing in earnest too soon.
On His Own had set off like a scalded cat under Patrick Mullins with Cooper keeping close tabs on the leader.
Turning for home, to say last year’s winner Carlingford Lough was detached at the back of the field would be an understatement of epic proportions but as those in front of him slowed to a crawl in the gruelling conditions, John Kiely’s charge took off and powered home for a remarkable victory.
Predictably, Road To Riches’ odds for the Cheltenham Gold Cup lengthened with Noel Meade’s charge now as big as 20/1 with many bookmakers to go two better than last year’s third place finish.
On Saturday’s evidence, even repeating that heroic 2015 effort looks a tall order.
Meade was predictably deflated in the aftermath.
“I don’t know,” he replied when asked what went wrong.
“I’ll have to look at it again. He never got into any sort of a rhythm.
“I was never happy watching it and Bryan said he was never happy riding him.
“From the way the race finished up I would have thought the frontrunners maybe went too hard and he got dragged into that a bit because he walked from the last home. He absolutely walked home, as did most of them.
“The winner was last turning in and I would think — at this minute in time — they probably got the pace of the race wrong and went too quick in front.”
Visually that looked the case but, while the better ground he’ll likely encounter at Cheltenham will aid Road To Riches’ cause, it’s hard — unless Gigginstown reroute the nine-year-old to the Ryanair Chase — to envisage Cooper being his partner.
Not when he will also have the option of a dual Festival winner in Don Poli or the highest rated chaser in training in Don Cossack.
Choosing between those two is still a tricky dilemma but if there a measure of consolation for Cooper to take from Saturday’s disappointment, it’s that the decision he faces is now a straight choice.
That said, Saturday showed even a choice of two can be hazardous.
Barry Geraghty could have ridden Carlingford Lough but opted instead for Gilgamboa.
It was an understandable call given Gilgamboa had run well at Leopardstown at Christmas, finishing fourth to Minella Foru in the Paddy Power Chase 24 hours before Carlingford Lough trailed in last of six, 34 lengths behind Don Poli in the Lexus Chase.
AP McCoy, who rode Carlingford Lough to victory in this race 12 months ago, 24 hours after shocking the sporting world by announcing his intention to retire, said he would he have made the same decision as his successor did.
That, though, will have been little consolation to Geraghty as he watched Carlingford Lough power clear to provide Mark Walsh with the biggest — and perhaps most unlikely — victory of his career.
“It’s brilliant. I was going around there thinking I had no chance. I was nearly going to pull up at one stage,” Walsh admitted.
“I was never travelling. But once I jumped the second last, turned into the straight and passed a horse he just took off and galloped all the way to the line.”
Valseur Lido still looked a danger when coming to grief at the last but Walsh believes he had him covered by that stage.
“You don’t know what would have happened but I was the one that was quickening and I’m fairly confident I would have won anyway,” he said.
However, it seems clear Saturday’s race — dramatic though it was — will have little or no significance come the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
It’s doubtful Carlingford Lough has the pace required to stay in touch long enough to make his finishing burst count.
He certainly didn’t last year, trailing in ninth, 28 lengths behind Coneygree.
The Grand National looks a better option.
The fact Valseur Lido would have been — at worst — a good second also raises question marks over the overall quality of Saturday’s race.
Valseur Lido was well beaten when falling at the last on his previous start, the King George on St Stephen’s Day and the fact he was in contention at the business end at Leopardstown suggests the top five in the market — Vautour, Don Cossack, Djakadam, Don Poli and Cue Card — will have little to fear from Saturday’s runners come March 18.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved