Briar Hill made to work at Naas
NOT for the first time, Briar Hill turned in a workmanlike success which failed to impress ante-post layers at Naas, but that didn't bother connections.
Last season's Cheltenham Bumper winner ground out a two-and-a-quarter-length success in the featured Slaney Novice Hurdle and, just like his previous victory at Navan, the six-year-old never travelled like a 1/3 favourite.
But such observations did little to dampen Willie Mullins' enthusiasm after Ruby Walsh's mount shouldered a Grade One penalty to gain a battling success over runner-up Apache Jack.
"He's improving all the time. It was a nice performance giving weight away against two good horses, and that probably wouldn't be his preferred ground," Mullins observed.
"I imagine I might give him another run before Cheltenham; we'll see, though, as I haven't anything in mind.
"He's lazy, and Ruby said the minute he passed the winning post he dropped it (the bridle); he only does enough all the time. He's bred to get a trip, but he seems to have plenty of speed on better ground.
"He'll get an entry in the three races at Cheltenham, but I imagine we'll look at the Neptune or the Albert Bartlett, depending on what other runners we have."
Predictably, Paddy Power left Briar Hill unchanged at 12/1 for both the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham, but Mullins suggests the former is unlikely.
The withdrawal of the Mullins-trained favourite Mozoltov from the EBF Novice Chase left the door open for Mallowney to get the better of Noel Meade's Ned Buntline, which went off the even-money favourite.
Tim Doyle's charge led from the outset, jumping well for Andrew McNamara before comfortably holding off Ned Buntline by just over two lengths. "I thought that was a good performance. He jumped like a real two-mile chaser," said Doyle. "He is in at Leopardstown or we might look at the Flyingbolt Novice Chase (at Navan) for him."
Cork trainer James Motherway took the opening maiden hurdle with Authorization, which bounced back from suspension in the hands of Paul Townend.
Connections were found guilty of "using the racecourse as a training ground" when the five-year-old finished sixth at this track in October. The horse was banned for 60 days, Motherway was fined €2,000 and jockey Jody McGarvey was suspended for 14 days and forced to forfeit his riding fee.
Held up off the pace, the 3/1 second favourite made steady progress behind the leaders up the straight before jumping to the front and easing clear of runner-up Morney Wing.
Motherway said: "This horse's biggest problem has been his temperament as he has been too keen and he has been killing himself in races. It is nice that he has won well and he jumped well."
Denis Hogan's evergreen Luke's Benefit survived a blunder at the final fence to complete a hat-trick in the Joe Byrne Memorial Handicap Chase.
A winner of a Fairyhouse handicap hurdle before landing a Punchestown handicap chase on New Year's Eve for the third successive year, the 12-year-old made all the running under Brian Cawley.
"That's his ninth win and there is no sign of retiring him at the moment," said Hogan. "There is possibly another hurdle (race) in him off his rating. He owes us nothing."
Trainer Stuart Crawford recorded his fifth winner of 2014 as 7/4 favourite Aibrean collected the mares' novice chase in the hands of Paul Carberry.
Younger sister Nina took the bumper aboard Noel Meade's 9/4 newcomer Champoleon, while the Charlie Swan-trained Getoutwhenyoucan (2/1 favourite) stormed clear for Ger Fox in the Martinstown Opportunity Handicap Hurdle.