Willie Mullins completed a bold international foray to Japan in typically precise fashion when Blackstairmountain plundered Saturday's Nakayama Grand Jump under Ruby Walsh.
As we near the end of a domestic season that has been utterly dominated by his Closutton stable, Mullins was clearly not content to confine his foreign exploits to more familiar territories such as Britain and France. Instead, he convinced owner Rich Ricci to send a horse whose last three wins came in two qualified riders' Flat races at Bellewstown and a conditions hurdle at Cork halfway around the world for a Grade One on an unusual figure-of-eight course that features brush fences, hurdles, water jumps and steep drop slopes.
A trial in the Pegasus Jump over two miles went poorly, but the champion trainer's global ambition was undimmed. Saturday's contest was over five furlongs further, and he felt that his former dual Grade One winner would be happier at that trip on the prevailing fast ground.
In the end, on a venture that had its genesis in the perpetual search for some decent going, Mullins was proved right in spectacular style. Having turned down invitations for Florida Pearl and Alexander Banquet since the Grand Jump was first opened up to foreign runners in 2000, Mullins watched Walsh drive Blackstairmountain into the lead over the last flight.
The 25/1 shot held off the fast-finishing Pegasus winner Rikiai Kurofune by half a length to defy long-standing question marks about his constitution, although Walsh would have probably won on both horses. Either way, by netting the €565,000 winner's pot, the incomparable trainer-jockey combo earned the most valuable win of their respective careers.
The Aintree Grand National is the only jump race currently worth more than the Grand Jump, yet there had been no overseas runner in the Japanese event since 2008. Blackstairmountain, which Mullins suggested could return next year, was its first ever European winner.
Obviously the Grand Jump lacks prestige in the traditional sense, and that Blackstairmountain was good enough to win it puts the quality of the race into context. Still, as we have seen with Mullins' daring exploits in France and on the Flat with Ebor hero Sesenta and last year's dual Ascot winner Simenon, he has never shirked what might be considered an unconventional challenge for an Irish jumps trainer in the quest to fully exploit his horses' capabilities.
As such, Blackstairmountain's triumph was yet another monumental success for one of the game's true innovators, and it reflected that of Grabel for his father Paddy in the Duelling Grounds Hurdle at Kentucky in 1990. With a win purse of $312,224, that famous international endeavour was also his late father's single most lucrative victory.
Now, Mullins will revert to terra firma, with Punchestown's five-day grand finale due to begin tomorrow week. Despite having topped Aidan O'Brien's record of 155 winners in a jump season back in February, a landmark 200 is beginning to look beyond him (his current tally is now at 177) after a previously ferocious pace naturally slowed since Cheltenham.
Crowned leading handler in the Cotswolds for a second time in three years in March, when five winners took him past Tom Dreaper as the most successful Irish-based handler in the history of the Festival, he is now eight shy of 100 Grade One wins. To hit that milestone before the end of term, he needs to take 66pc of the 12 relevant races up for grabs next week.
With the likes of Our Conor, Sprinter Sacre and Rock On Ruby in opposition, that goal might also prove elusive. Nonetheless, the six-time champion has already won 60pc of the Grade Ones held here this term, and a team comprising Hurricane Fly, Quevega, Sir Des Champs, Annie Power, Champagne Fever, Pique Sous and Briar Hill is certain to plunder its fair share.
Lily's Angel maintains Lyons' Kempton record
Ger Lyons stretched his unbeaten run at Kempton's all-weather track to three when Lily's Angel stormed home in a Listed race over a mile on Saturday.
Gary Carroll's mount won its first four starts for the wily Co Meath handler after transferring from Richard Fahey's yard in the autumn. She had come undone twice since, but justified 5/2 favouritism with a commanding two-length triumph here to add to Lyons' respective course wins in Listed and Group company with Dohasa and Love Lockdown in 2009.
Fehily to ride Rock On despite 12-day ban
Rock On Ruby's rider Noel Fehily picked up a 12-day ban for going the wrong side of a hurdle marker on Hassadin in the back straight at Uttoxeter on Saturday.
The west Cork native won't be able to ride at either Punchestown or Sandown on the last day of the season next Saturday week, as the suspension begins that day. However, he will be free to ride up to then, meaning that he will be able to fulfil his duties on Harry Fry's 2012 champion hurdler in the previous day's Rabobank Champion Hurdle, which will see the partnership bid to reverse last month's Cheltenham form with Hurricane Fly.
Galway-born Alain Cawley incurred a seven-day ban for his use of the whip in the same race.
Oscar stars at Tramore before rain comes down
Yesterday's Tramore card had to be abandoned after 15mm of rain fell overnight and continued to dump on the track yesterday morning.
Saturday's fixture went ahead without any problems, although heavy fog seriously reduced visibility at various stages throughout the day. The most impressive winner on the card was Roger Sweeney's Fiery Oscar (5/4f), which readily completed a treble on its switch back from hurdles under the trainer's son Colman in the two-mile-six-furlong handicap chase.
Sweeney's Salsify remains on course for a heavyweight hunter chase showdown at Punchestown, where he could again meet the luckless Oscar Delta and old rival Tammys Hill, a facile winner of the Joe O'Reilly Memorial at Fairyhouse. A rejuvenated Mossey Joe and David Pipe's 2012 Foxhunters' runner-up Chapoturgeon are also pencilled in for a Punchestown contest that promises to be a real treat.
Also Punchestown bound is Pat Flynn's Storm Away, a four-year-old half-sister to the Waterford handler's 2009 Galway Hurdle winner Bahrain Storm. On her debut on Saturday, the Kalanisi filly collected at odds of 9/1 to earn a tilt at next week's Festival.
There was more local joy earlier, when Henry de Bromhead's Beckwith Star obliged under Philip Enright in the two-mile handicap hurdle.
Black Caviar makes it 25 in a row Down Under
Unbeaten Australian sprinting sensation Black Caviar defied fears about an inside draw and slow ground to stride to a 15th Group One win in Saturday's TJ Smith Stakes at Randwick.
The comfortable 1/7 triumph was the remarkable mare's 25th win on the bounce, though her handler Peter Moody subsequently suggested that her much talked about return to Royal Ascot in June might not happen. Successful in a dramatic edition of the Diamond Jubilee Stakes under Luke Nolen last year, Black Caviar was expected to have a tilt at the five-furlong King's Stand Stakes this time ahead of a stud date with Frankel.
However, Moody favours keeping her at home this time so that she could have one more campaign in 2014. He feels that if she were to travel to Ascot, she would not be fit to race next year, but he isn't averse to postponing the prospect of a Royal finale for 12 months.
Number of week
9 The number of riders hit with two-day bans for their part in the second of two false starts to Fiery's Oscar's handicap chase at Tramore on Saturday. Despite the flawless precedent set by their counterparts in the Aintree Grand National, Colman Sweeney, John Lalor, David Splaine, Philip Enright, Mark Enright, Sean McDermott, Ian McCarthy, Liz Lalor and Adrian Heskin were all found guilty.
Tweet of week
Robbie McNamara (@RobbiepMcN)
Day called off due to wind and rain, couch it is.
Amateur rider Robbie McNamara echoes the sentiments of many jump jockeys on Twitter after point-to-points scheduled for Dromahane and Kilmallock joined Tramore by being called off. Golf fanatic McNamara would have been glad to settle down early for the Masters.