Sir Des Champs built on his improved Christmas display to confirm his status as a genuine contender for next month's Cheltenham Gold Cup with a comprehensive defeat of Flemenstar in Saturday's Hennessy-sponsored equivalent at Leopardstown.
Courtesy of a smart Davy Russell steer, the seven-year-old (11/8) seized the initiative from Quel Esprit three-out en route to delivering Willie Mullins an incredible ninth victory in the prestigious €160,000 Grade One race.
From the off, Andrew Lynch positioned Flemenstar a few lengths off the leaders – as he did prior to their Lexus capitulation. In a four-runner field, the smallest in the history of the race, that amounted to dropping right out.
Off a sedate gallop, Flemenstar certainly settled better, but he hadn't the legs to accelerate when Lynch asked him to go after Sir Des Champs on the run to the last fence.
In a slow-run race, it is always preferable to be close to the pace. As such, Russell judged things beautifully, dictating the terms of engagement and getting first run on his chief rival.
While Flemenstar's owner Stephen Curran has stated that his horse underperformed, all the evidence suggests he simply isn't as good over three miles as he is over shorter.
Moreover, the folly of trying to stretch such a bold-jumping, long-striding horse's stamina was crystallised when Lynch had to rein him back after he briefly jumped to the front two-out.
As a naturally exuberant chaser with bundles of class and pace, Peter Casey's star remains possibly the only horse capable of shaking up Sprinter Sacre.
In all likelihood, he will get a cut at the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but the giddiness of that prospect is tempered by the fact that he has now emptied the tank in two gruelling defeats over three miles.
Sizing Europe did recover from a similarly taxing foray over three miles to claim glory in the two-mile crown two years ago.
However, there were all of four months between his surrender to Kauto Star at Down Royal in November and Cheltenham in March, and his only run in between came in the Tied Cottage Chase over two miles at the end of January.
As for Sir Des Champs, he will now head for the Gold Cup on a steady upward curve, though we really learned little new about him on Saturday.
He appeared sharper than he had been on either of his previous two outings this term, and certainly fenced more fluidly.
Ultimately, though, for all that, Flemenstar went off the odds-on favourite, Sir Des Champs showed no more or less progression than many expected on the back of his deeply encouraging Lexus display.
He turned around the form with Flemenstar by a couple of lengths, which was always on the cards if he jumped a little better than he did last time.
Along with fellow Gigginstown Stud-owned First Lieutenant, he is the brightest Irish-trained Gold Cup hope since the same firm's 2006 hero War Of Attrition.
Both horses will thrive on spring ground at Prestbury Park, – as they have done twice before – but Saturday's contest was largely inconclusive in terms of the wider Gold Cup picture.
On paper, that was a more quantifiable event, but the reality now is that Silviniaco Conti, Sir Des Champs, First Lieutenant and ante-post market leader Bobs Worth are the pick of a new generation of Gold Cup wannabes that are yet to have their limits fully established.
A fascinating encounter with Long Run on March 15 should see to that. Tick-tock.
Mullins four-timer equals previous best
Sir Des Champs' brilliant victory ensured that Willie Mullins departed from Leopardstown with a stunning Grade One treble, courtesy of earlier wins for Boston Bob and Champagne Fever.
It was the second time that he achieved such a feat, and, once Tennis Cap had made all in the Paddypower.com Handicap Hurdle and completed a treble for 2011 champion jockey Paul Townend, the six-time champion trainer finished with a tasty 124/1 quartet.
Mullins has completely dominated the season, his current tally of 146 equalling his previous best. Aidan O'Brien's 1996 record of 155 in a domestic jumps season is, well, doomed.
In the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, the task was made easier for Champagne Fever (2/1 fav) after Waaheb crashed out early.
Still, he turned in a polished round of jumping and relentless galloping to score from the front for Townend, with Bright New Dawn keeping on in second.
The odds for Rich Ricci's grey were trimmed to as low as 14/1 for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, though Mullins isn't ruling out one of the longer events, while the Graham Wylie-owned Boston Bob has the choice of the Jewson or RSA Chase.
Townend excelled on the 6/4 market leader in the Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase, conjuring a belated burst up the run-in to foil Texas Jack by a nose, with Lord Windermere just a half a length further back in a thrilling finish.
"Drier ground at Cheltenham will be a huge factor and we'll look at the Jewson Novices' Chase if the ground is soft, although it looks like he wants a longer trip," Mullins reported of last year's Festival runner-up, which is 14/1 for the Jewson but as low as 4/1 for the RSA.
Mullins also said that Quevega "had a bit of a cold this week".
He added: "She's very funny and lets you know the minute something's wrong – she'll be back in full action next week."
OUR Conor and Salsify head Festival markets
At 6/1 and 5/1 respectively, Our Conor and Salsify share the market leads for the Triumph Hurdle and Foxhunters' Chase at Cheltenham after their victorious exploits on Saturday afternoon.
Our Conor (10/3) denied Mullins' Diakali to land the Grade One Spring Hurdle in fine style for Dessie Hughes and Bryan Cooper.
Last year's Foxhunter hero Salsify had to work harder to overhaul his nemesis Tammys Hill in the Raymond Smith Memorial Hunters' Chase.
However, Colman Sweeney got his father Rodger's stalwart home by a neck in the end to record successive victories in the marquee three-miler ahead of a return to the Prestbury Park track.
Henderson's 'tent' shines for AP AND JP
A year after Darlan – which was fatally injured at Doncaster last Monday – crashed out with the race at his mercy, My Tent Or Yours bagged a deeply impressive Betfair Hurdle triumph for the same team of AP McCoy, JP McManus, and Nicky Henderson at Newbury on Saturday.
Sent off the 5/1 favourite for the valuable handicap, the promosing novice defied fears over his relative inexperience to comprehensively beat Cotton Mill by five lengths, prompting most bookmakers to promote him to 9/4 favouritism for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle ahead of Jessica Harrington's Jezki, (now 9/2 from 3/1) which also runs in the McManus silks.
10,658 – The official attendance for Saturday's bumper Leopardstown card, up six per cent on last year's Sunday equivalent. Following a disappointing turnout for the two-day Irish Champion Hurdle fixture and the publication of a dismal set of industry figures, it was a welcome fillip.
The Turf Club's annual integrity statistics revealed a further six per cent decrease in the number of trainers' licences issued in 2012, taking the current quota back to 2003 levels.
The number of restricted licences did increase by nearly four per cent, reflecting anecdotal evidence that many trainers, while still having the horses to justify a licence, are unable to show the stipulated working capital bank balance of €20,000 to acquire a full licence. The number of riders' licences plummeted for a fourth year in a row to 686, down seven per cent.
@PeterCasey22 – You're all entitled to your opinion and so am I. Me and Junie have decided to celebrate every day, maybe you can do the same, can't wait Queen M
– The official Peter Casey Twitter account, managed by a member of his wider Tubbertown team rather than by the veteran husband of the now renowned Junie, with a philosophical response to the barbs from the Twitterati after Flemenstar's defeat.
• Yesterday's card at Naas was abandoned due to a waterlogged track, while tomorrow's rescheduled Down Royal fixture is also now cancelled.