Esprit shows bottle to earn Gold Cup tilt
Quel Esprit left behind the jumping problems that blighted his novice chasing campaign to record a convincing success in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown yesterday.
Only time will tell if the dashing Ruby Walsh-ridden grey can make an impact in next month's showpiece at the Cheltenham Festival, but this was a victory to be savoured all on its own.
By maintaining his unbeaten record in completed starts over fences in the €92,000 highlight of the domestic season, Quel Esprit supplied Willie Mullins with a remarkable eighth triumph in the Leopardstown Grade One.
"It has been a lucky race for us," the champion trainer admitted. "With the progress that he was making at the start of the season, I was hoping that Quel Esprit could go all the way. He is the only Grade One chaser that I have at the moment, so he will probably take his chance in the Cheltenham Gold Cup now. I often think that if you have one good enough, you should go for it. That would be my attitude anyway."
After two easy wins in lesser company, Quel Esprit was stepping up in class, though three high-profile withdrawals last week diminished the final line-up.
When Quel Esprit failed to get round in three of his four starts as a novice, all those spills came at the highest level, so the big question here was how well his fencing would hold up.
In the event, he was never put under serious pressure as Walsh set out to make all on the well-backed 5/4 favourite.
Bostons Angel, his closest pursuer for most of the race under Robbie Power, tried to force the issue down the back straight for the last time. However, Quel Esprit, whose only perceptible error came when he got close to the last fence with a circuit to run, responded by stepping up another gear.
It was only after landing over that fence next time round that Walsh assumed the drive position and the partnership kept going well to repel the staying-on Roberto Goldback by two lengths, with the rank outsider Treacle third and Follow The Plan fourth.
Mullins credited Walsh, who was winning the race for a second time, for his decisive performance on the eight-year-old, though Paul Townend is expected to take over at Cheltenham, with Walsh due to ride Kauto Star.
"I thought Ruby gave him a very brave ride," Mullins said. "He wasn't afraid to let him go on in front and just jump from fence to fence and it paid off.
"The horse has always been a fantastic jumper, so we were surprised and disappointed with the way things fell apart for him last year. We had his wind operated on in the off-season because I was afraid it might be catching him when he came under pressure, so I don't know if that has made the difference, or if he is just a stronger horse this year."
Quel Esprit was cut to 14/1 from 25/1 by Boylesports for Cheltenham glory.
Mullins and Walsh had earlier teamed up to take the mares' hurdle on the Catleen (7/2), while Patrick Mullins completed a treble for his father on Pique Sous (7/4) in the bumper.
On a day for front-runners, Bryan Cooper seized the initiative to record his first Grade One victory on the 50/1 shot Benefficient in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle.
Sous Les Cieux went off favourite to turn the tables on his Christmas conqueror Cash And Go in this, but never landed a telling blow after Ruby Walsh settled him well in early on.
While Sous Les Cieux eventually got going to finish a length and a quarter behind in second, Cooper always had his measure on Tony Martin's six-year-old, which had been pulled up behind Folsom Blue at Thurles last month.
Il Fenomeno, having chased the winner throughout, blundered at the last en route to finishing third, with Cash And Go well-held in fifth.
Following a maiden hurdle win at Navan in December, this was just Benefficient's second win in six starts, but Martin revealed that he had long held him in high-regard.
"We always knew he was a good horse," beamed the Co Meath handler, swamped by an exuberant entourage celebrating the 50th birthday of the horse's owner, Aiden Shiels.
"He is an old-fashioned horse -- a big baby, still raw and immature -- and I'd say the heavy ground at Thurles took its toll. He could go to Cheltenham now, maybe for the Neptune, but he is going to make a proper chaser if he stays right."
Boylesports subsequently cut Benefficient's odds for the Neptune to 25/1 from 66/1, while the same firm left Last Instalment unchanged at 7/1 for the RSA Chase after he completed his Cheltenham preparations with another thoroughly convincing display in the Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase.
Racing over three furlongs less than when successful in the three-miler here at Christmas, Davy Russell ensured it would be a true-run race by bouncing the Philip Fenton-trained son of Anshan out from the off.
After getting in close to two-out, Last Instalment was momentarily joined by Call The Police jumping the final fence, before quickly striding a length a half clear to justify a starting price of 8/11 on ground that was officially described as good to soft, good in places.
"We'll go for the RSA now," Fenton said of the Gigginstown House Stud-owned winner.
"They went a sensible gallop there, which was lovely, because the last thing he wanted was a 'grueller' before going to Cheltenham. This is as quick as he would want it, so we'd love to see lots of rain before Cheltenham. He seems to have it all."
Hisaabaat, sporting first-time blinkers over jumps, provided Dermot Weld with his second successive win in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle following Unaccompanied 12 months ago.
Second in its three previous tries over flights, the Dubawi gelding will now attempt to go one better than his predecessor -- which went on to finish second in the Triumph Hurdle -- and was cut to 14/1 from 25/1 by Paddy Power to do so.
After watching Andrew Lynch bring Hisaabaat (15/2) with a well-timed run to go clear of Shadow Catcher from the last in the opening Grade One, Weld reported: "He did it well and got a lovely ride from Andrew. Hisaabaat has learned his job well, he is consistent and progressive, and he should run well at Cheltenham. He is a different sort of horse to Unaccompanied but he would have a realistic chance."
Also Cheltenham-bound after a game win in the Raymond Smith Memorial Hunters' Chase is Salsify. The Colman Sweeney-ridden 11/1 shot led at the last to deny the pace-setting Saddlers Storm, and will now tackle the Foxhunters'.