Festival looks Next Destination for Mullins star after Naas success
Next Destination could head straight to the Cheltenham Festival after he proved the centrepiece of a Willie Mullins treble thanks to his workmanlike victory in the featured Lawlor's Novice Hurdle at Naas yesterday.
The Malcolm Denmark-owned six-year-old looked the real deal on his two other starts over hurdles and was a prohibitively priced 8/15 favourite to complete his hat-trick in the Grade One over two and a half miles.
It was not entirely plain sailing for Next Destination, but he impressed in the jumping department and knuckled down after the final flight under an assured Paul Townend to see off Cracking Smart by a length.
Mullins, who was winning the race a sixth time in the last nine renewals, said: "He's improving all the time. It was a very slow-run race and, tactically, it was a lot different than we thought it would be.
"His jumping held up under pressure over the last two and he was in front far enough to withstand the late challenge of the second horse."
Mullins confirmed the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle as Next Destination's likely Cheltenham Festival assignment, but is not ruling out stepping up to three miles for the Albert Bartlett - or even coming back to two miles for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
Asked whether Next Destination could run again before March, Mullins reasoned: "Immediately after the race I thought we would, but the more I think about it, maybe not.
"The Ballymore would look the most likely, but we'll keep our options open.
"He'll get three miles, but when he's so slick jumping and with the gallop you'd get in Cheltenham, he'll get an entry in the two-mile race as well."
The winner's stablemate, Duc Des Genievres, shaped with significant promise on his Irish debut in third.
Next Destination was the second of the champion trainer's treble, following up the success of his Demi Sang in the two-mile novice chase with the (11/10 favourite) lunging late to score under Barry Geraghty.
The five-year-old won twice at Auteuil last September before being snapped up by leading owner JP McManus and joining Mullins. While his jumping was not entirely convincing and he did not travel with much zest, he moved up to challenge the front-running Avenir D'Une Vie in the home straight.
Avenir D'Une Vie appeared to have the race in safe keeping when kicking on between the final two fences, but Geraghty did not give up aboard Demi Sang and after battling his way back into contention jumping the last, the Mullins runner finished strongly to prevail by a length and a quarter.
Mullins nominated the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase at Leopardstown on February 3 as a potential target for his charge.
"I thought he'd jump a bit quicker and he might need to jump a bit sharper. I'm sure he'll learn from that," said the trainer.
Townend later completed the mullins three-timer and his double aboard the front-running Asthuria (1/3 favourite) in the mares' beginners' chase.
The market leader jumped well in the main and eased away in the straight to ease 15 lengths clear of Golden Flowerpower.
"I think the Opera Hat back here is the next mares' chase. It's an open race but that might be what we do with her," said Mullins.
Another Barney made a successful debut under rules in the opening maiden hurdle to provide Jessica Harrington with a welcome winner after she failed to hit the target over the festive period.
The winner of a Tralee point-to-point last May, the five-year-old was second best in the market at 4/1 for this two-mile contest.
Heavily backed 8/11 favourite Grotesque and Border Control battled for the lead racing down the back straight, but Robbie Power was waiting in the wings aboard Another Barney and it was he who quickened up best to score by five and a half lengths.
"I've had more seconds in December than anything else," reflected Harrington. "Maybe there wasn't that much wrong with the horses but they were just getting beaten.
"He showed what I thought he'd show. He's going to be a chaser and I think he'll appreciate a bit better ground in the spring. We'll see where we go with him now."
Keith Watson's Blue Empyrean was a 5/1 winner of the two-mile handicap chase.
There were several horses, including 6/4 favourite Sizing Platinum, in with a chance of victory at the final fence, but finished best to score by two and three-quarter lengths from Eiri Na Casca under 3lb-claimer Andrew Ring.
Marshall Watson, son of the winning trainer, said: "He'll get a break now as he's had three quick runs and we'll probably go two and a half (miles) or even further in future."
Alan Fleming could also have a nice horse in his care after promising grey Espanito Bello (6/4 favourite) claimed the concluding bumper on his debut under Mark O'Hare.
"He's a nice horse and he's going to get two and a half and three miles in time," said Fleming.
"The four-year-old winners' bumper in Limerick would look tailor-made for him if it's heavy.
"We'll give him time as he's going to be a tall horse."