Mullins breaks Lexus duck with classy Don Poli
Willie Mullins finally secured a breakthrough victory in the Lexus Chase yesterday when Don Poli clung on to deny First Lieutenant in trademark workmanlike fashion.
With the runner-up also sporting Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud colours, it was a tense climb to the finish line in gruelling conditions on the 4/6 shot for Bryan Cooper.
A subsequent stewards' inquiry would not have been as fraught, for, while Don Poli drifted left across Foxrock, that horse passed the post in third.
Cooper neglected to change his whip into his left hand and was cautioned for careless riding, but disqualifying Don Poli would have been inconsistent with recent precedents in this country.
Davy Russell had foiled Cooper in the day's first Grade One when Prince Of Scars thwarted Mouse Morris's Alpha Des Obeaux in the Squared Financial Hurdle. Russell was also aboard Morris's First Lieutenant, but this time his successor in the ubiquitous maroon and white silks triumphed.
Cooper had to get serious on Don Poli to first overhaul On His Own and Foxrock on the run to the final fence and then repel First Lieutenant's surge.
As is his wont, the classy six-year-old found enough, scoring by half-a-length to claim the €90,000 prize.
Despite his lazy running style being well established, bookmakers reacted by pushing him out to 6/1 from 4/1 for Gold Cup glory in March.
Maybe they were put off by the proximity of elder statesmen such as the 10-year-old First Lieutenant and the 11-year-old fourth On His Own, which was revitalised in blinkers.
"Don Poli will never show off," Mullins conceded. "He just does what he has to - he is very lazy. He is very tough and, when the others came at him, he kept pulling out more. It's hard to know how much more he could produce. That was his first run in a senior Grade One."
As of now, Mullins has Don Poli, Djakadam and Vautour in the Gold Cup picture.
Traditionally, the old Hennessy Gold Cup, which he has won nine times, would have been high on the agenda. However, after Djakadam last year became Mullins's fifth runner-up in the main event at Prestbury Park, he is tweaking his strategy slightly.
"They will all be put in the race here in February but we'll have to see," he said. "This fellow has had two tough races so he could go straight to Cheltenham. The Hennessy has been a good race to us but this season we are going to totally focus on March. Djakadam will probably go to Cheltenham at the end of the month, but everything is still to be decided."
Cooper, who won the 2014 Lexus on Road To Riches, could also have a big decision to make. Road To Riches, third in the Gold Cup in March, remains a player, likewise Don Cossack.
Gordon Elliott suggested that his King George casualty could next take in the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles in January. He was unequivocal in stating that the Gold Cup would be his Cheltenham target, so Cooper has lots of thinking to do.
It was hard to conceive that he might be on the wrong one in the big hurdle, but circumstances conspired against him. Alpha Des Obeaux was left in front after Snow Falcon crashed at the fourth flight and doing it on his own simply didn't suit.
When Russell brought Elliott's Prince Of Scars - backed from 16/1 into 10/1 - with a wet sail on the run to the last, Alpha Des Obeaux was a sitting duck.
"I thought he might run well and we'd have a go at the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park," was Elliott's assessment of Prince Of Scars, which had won handicaps at Clonmel and Navan.
"He could still go there but I'm not sure now, and I'm not sure that he'd be a World Hurdle horse on good ground."
Arctic Fire, trying three miles for a first time, appeared to not stay, so the €85,000 race fell apart a little.
Russell had initiated a 54/1 brace when guiding Andrew Lynch's Zabana (4/1) to a convincing win in the beginners' chase, while Edward Cawley and Tony Martin also got among the winners.
Cawley's 16/1 shot Forever Gold won the Pertemps qualifier for Chris Timmons, while Martin and Barry Geraghty took the shorter handicap hurdle with Whatsforuwontgobyu (9/2) in JP McManus' colours.
Gurteen landed a major gamble in the bumper. Backed from 10/1 overnight into an SP of 9/4, he duly scored for Robert Tyner and Derek O'Connor.
On a wet day, attendance fell by 1,911 to 16,466 and the bookmakers' take was down €105,800 to €1,078,531.