'Bells' could ring to end Mullins' Gold Cup pain
Bellshill made it a perfect 10 for Willie Mullins in the Irish Gold Cup, as the Closutton maestro strengthened his hand considerably in a bid to finally break his duck in the Cheltenham equivalent next month.
Mullins has hit the post six times in the Gold Cup, but holds three of this year's leading blue riband protagonists with Kemboy (8/1), Bellshill (12/1) and Al Boum Photo (14/1) on course for the Cotswolds.
With Anibale Fly, Balko des Flos, last year's winner Edwulf, Monalee and Al Boum Photo all taken out due to ground concerns, much of the lustre was taken off the Leopardstown showpiece, but that didn't stop Bellshill (2/1) and Road To Respect (5/6 favourite) serving up a cracker.
Only four went to post, but it proved a nail-biter, with Ruby Walsh illustrating his class to deliver Bellshill (2/1) beautifully after the last and nab Noel Meade's eight-year-old on the line, much to Mullins' obvious delight.
"What I really liked about the horse was that every time Ruby wanted a jump he took two lengths out of the one in front. He knew that he had that in hand and he was very confident and cool," Mullins said.
"A lot of horses didn't turn up, but still the quality horses were here and they served up a fantastic race. We might have a few nice horses to go to Cheltenham with. He's always promised to be this good. Now he's won his Irish Gold Cup and hopefully we'll follow on, maybe, next month."
The powerful Mullins-Walsh axis had earlier landed the Grade One Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle with Klassical Dream (9/4 favourite), as favourite backers had a bonanza with four of the eight hotpots obliging - while joint-favourite Dallas Des Pictons (7/2) landed the William Fry Handicap Hurdle for Gordon Elliott and the red-hot Jack Kennedy.
It looked like Walsh had made the wrong decision to abandon stablemate Aramon (5/2) approaching the last when Paul Townend loomed large, but Walsh was able to galvinise his mount like so often in the past to score by a head in a thrilling finale.
One of the stories of yesterday was the whopping 22 non-runners (from a total of 105 runners) because of the unsuitably good ground and it was nearly as significant which horses didn't run as the ones which did.
It really hurt the closing day and the Dublin Racing Festival as a whole, but whether officials could have done much to prevent such an occurrence is up for debate, with champion trainer Mullins and leading owner Michael O'Leary having different views.
"I've never seen anything like it. We've had a dry summer, dry autumn, dry winter. It's a year in three lifetimes, that's what it is," Mullins said of the ground.
O'Leary countered: "The ground has been an issue this week and if it's this firm next year, Leopardstown will have to take a look at watering it. Horse welfare is an issue and it's dangerous as it's so close to Cheltenham."
La Bague Au Roi, ridden by Richard Johnson, thrived, however, with Warren Greatrex's hardy mare striking the only blow for the English raiding party to enhance her growing reputation in the Grade One Flogas Novice Chase.
The absence of Elliott's Delta Work because of fast ground robbed the 11,712 in attendance - combined crowds were down nearly 2,000 compared to last year's Festival - of a mouth-watering duel, but that didn't deter the front-running La Bague Au Roi one iota under a fine ride from English champion jockey Richard Johnson.
"The Irish are so strong and to come over here in their own backyard and win is great. She has put a lot into that, I'm not sure about Cheltenham, we'll sleep on it," Greatrex said.
Sir Erec (13/8 favourite) left another positive impression when taking the Grade One Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle, with Joseph O'Brien's top-class Flat recruit parachuting to the head of the Triumph Hurdle betting (5/2 from 6/1).
Elsewhere, Paddy Kennedy replicated the heroics of younger brother Jack when the Kerry jockey guided Jessica Harrington's Whisperinthebreeze (7/1) to an all the way success in the Leopardstown Handicap Chase.