Flemenstar Gold Cup dream on course
If there was an outcome to send connections of the two most exciting Irish-trained Gold Cup prospects home relatively happy from Punchestown, Flemenstar's straightforward defeat of Sir Des Champs was probably it.
At best, the John Durkan Memorial Chase had promised a pugilistic showdown between the two. At worst, one of them might have emerged with its dreams in tatters.
In the end, we got something in between, as Peter Casey's race-fit Flemenstar inflicted a first chasing defeat on Willie Mullins' reappearing six-year-old. With the field reduced to three after Bog Warrior's withdrawal, Andrew Lynch set out to make all on Flemenstar, which had eased slightly in the betting to go off evens favourite.
On heavy ground, the partnership jumped out in front in the €80,000 feature as Davy Russell tracked Rubi Light closely on Sir Des Champs. However, he was niggling away down the back, and it was a testament to Sir Des Champs' resolve that he was still in there pitching when he passed Rubi Light at the third-last. In contrast, though, Lynch had been motionless throughout.
On straightening up, he got after Flemenstar, prompting a telling burst that quickly put the race to bed, and popped the last to score by five lengths.
It was another superlative display that secured Flemenstar a third Grade One success. According to his popular veteran handler, all roads lead to the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, though which particular path he takes there is unclear.
"He's a rare one," Casey beamed of Stephen Curran's gelding, "and he's still not ready. The Gold Cup is the main aim, as he's a lot more relaxed now. He'll probably go to Leopardstown for the Lexus Chase over Christmas, though whether that will come too soon or not, I don't know."
The Tubbertown handler also admitted that the three-mile chase at Cheltenham in January, formerly the Pillar Chase, was another option.
Flemenstar was cut from a high of 9/1 to as low as 4/1 joint-favourite for the March showpiece, while the runner-up was left unchanged at up to 7/1.
For Mullins' charge, beaten for a first time in eight starts, there might be more to come yet.
Russell relayed: "I'm not elated at finishing second, but I was happy with the way he jumped and finished his race. It's a starting point." Mullins was also philosophical, confirming that the Lexus, King George and Dial-A-Bet Chases were all options now.
On a day when the attendance grew 30pc to 3,150, the champion trainer departed with three odds-on winners, two of which were ridden by son Patrick. The 22-year-old is now just three shy of a 100-year-old amateur riders' record of 72 wins in a calendar year after taking the maiden hurdle on Archie O'Leary's Pride Of the Parish by 13 lengths, before Alan Potts' Sizing Tennessee landed the bumper in style.
In between, Paul Townend got a fine tune-out of Mikael D'Haguenet, as the former top-class hurdler left behind a string of hard-luck stories to break his duck over fences. "Finally," Mullins admitted after the eight-year-old denied Lord Windermere. "He is getting his act together, but we'll probably just try and find a winners' of one for him now."
Townend's first cousin Davy Condon was seen to good effect on Glenquest, which confirmed the promise of a third-place finish in the Troytown Chase to score for a first time in three years in the Weatherbys Ireland GSB Handicap Chase. Trained by Carrigtwohill-based Terence O'Brien, the blinkered 5/2 favourite made all before digging deep to repel the persistent challenge of De Dodger in the straight.
Earlier, Lynch initiated a double on the Henry de Bromhead-trained Too Scoops (6/1) in a Listed novice hurdle that was decimated by the loss of Shrapnel and Waaheb. In the Blue Square Handicap Hurdle, Oliver McKiernan's aptly named Happy New Year (13/2) obliged for a third time in two weeks under Shane Crimin.