Ruby Walsh showed just why he is the most decorated rider in the business with a storming display that saw him bring Tidal Bay from last to first for a dramatic head triumph in a barnstorming renewal of the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown.
The Grade One had been billed as a definitive test for this country's best Cheltenham Gold Cup prospects, with the enigmatic Paul Nicholls-trained 11-year-old setting the benchmark for the likes of Flemenstar, Sir Des Champs, First Lieutenant and Hidden Cyclone. Hidden Cyclone was the first to wilt after making much of the running, but Peter Casey's Flemenstar led First Lieutenant and Sir Des Champs over the last fence.
Everything seemed to be going more or less to plan. From just off the pace, Flemenstar, the great white hope of Irish steeplechasing, had fenced with all his usual vigour under Andrew Lynch, but then put in a short stride to make the final obstacle more manageable.
All of a sudden, the nagging question about such a strong traveller getting the three-mile trip was about to be answered. To the audible groan of an expectant crowd, the 5/4 favourite began making hard work of shaking off First Lieutenant.
Sure enough, the Mouse Morris-trained Hennessy Gold Cup third continued his seasonal tendency of improving with every race by edging past Flemenstar 100 yards out, but there was to be another twist in the tale.
Walsh had been gently nursing the quirky 2008 Arkle Trophy hero up the inside. When a gap emerged between the leading duo, he switched to full bore, and the old rogue beneath him stole through to claim the €93,000 spoils on the line.
Sir Des Champs, after making costly errors in the back straight, was the other one finishing with a flourish. The line, though, came too soon for Davy Russell's mount and while it was a better fourth than his reappearance second to Flemenstar at Punchestown, it wasn't nearly enough to foil Walsh's sublime sorcery.
Having conceded 6lb when a valiant second to Gold Cup favourite Bobs Worth in the Hennessy, it was a deserved victory for Tidal Bay. "We have worked out how to train him," Nicholls said of Graham Wylie's 9/2 winner, his third in the feature race.
"He had his reasons for being quirky, but he has turned around now. He is a true stayer, and an extra two furlongs in the Gold Cup would make a difference, though he would need the ground soft. The other option is the World Hurdle, he could go just as well in that. I just hope we can keep him like that for March."
While it was a vintage spectacle, Walsh, likewise enjoying a third Lexus success, subsequently suggested that the sort of sloppy fencing that saw his mount skew awkwardly at the last was not the sort of jumping that wins Gold Cups.
Morris said afterwards that he hoped for still more from the chinned First Lieutenant when he next turns out in the big race come March, while Casey and Willie Mullins saw enough in Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs, a half-length and short-head further back respectively, to reserve judgment until after a possible third successive clash in the Hennessy back here in February.
If there was a sense of deja vu about Irish Gold Cup dreams being dented in the Lexus – this being the raiders' sixth win in seven – Walsh's steer prompted a similar feeling on the day. Just over half an hour earlier, he filed the first draft of his ride of the year nomination on Mullins' Back In Focus in the same beige and black silks.
He brought his mount through to dispute the lead as they turned for home in the Grade One Topaz Novice Chase, but Lynch coaxed the 6/4 favourite's stablemate Aupcharlie to the front at the last. Inexplicably, Walsh galvanised a second burst out of Back In Focus to nab it by a head.
"We didn't think for one minute that Ruby would get back up until he did," the champion trainer admitted of the inspired drive. "Back In Focus has RSA written all over him, but he is a real winter horse, so he will probably run again before then. Aupcharlie might go for the Jewson Chase, but he will be out again before then too."
The win was the third of the day for Walsh, the Mullins-trained Supreme Carolina (5/1) having earlier set up a brilliant near-82/1 treble for the rider with a gutsy win in the conditions hurdle.
However, the Mullins-Walsh axis came up just short with Zaidpour in the Grade Two Woodiesdiy.com Christmas Hurdle, as Monksland (11/4) turned the tables on his Hatton's Grace conqueror on his first stab at three miles.
On a normal day, Paul Carberry might have earned the plaudits for his ride on Noel Meade's five-year-old, as he showed supreme conviction by refusing to panic when his mount looked in difficulty down the back.
"What can I say? He gave him a super ride," Meade gushed after the rider finally coaxed Monksland to the front up the run-in. "He is just a magic jockey."
Meade suggested the World Hurdle might be next for Monksland, and he was cut to as low as 6/1 co-favourite from a high of 20/1 to take advantage of Big Buck's absence at Cheltenham.
The day hadn't begun so well for Walsh as he was unseated from the favourite, Foxrock, at the first flight in the opening maiden hurdle which was not short on drama.
The spoils eventually went to Arthur Moore's Talbot Road (7/1) which stayed on well in the hands of Barry Cash. Moore said: "We've always liked him from day one and he's the best young horse we've had for a while. He's our big hope for the future."
Flying Light (10/1) gained a narrow success in the Mongey Communications Novice Handicap Hurdle, while Charlie Swan's 7/4 joint-favourite Tangled Web landed the bumper under Nina Carberry.
Attendance on another dry day at the Foxrock venue was up 8pc to 16,409, with the bookies increasing their take by 6pc to €1,412,287.