Gold Cup a step too far for Lieutenant
Ryanair Chase looks better fit for Morris' star
For the second year in a row, the feral disappointment of Ireland's Gold Cup prospects going up in smoke in the Lexus Chase is tempered by the utterly absorbing spectacle that prevailed in lieu.
On Saturday, Bobs Worth bounced back to close to his best under a sensational Barry Geraghty steer to thwart First Lieutenant. A year ago, it was the less prodigious Tidal Bay that chinned him.
Mouse Morris' eight-year-old emerges with plenty credit once again, but, as Davy Russell said in TG4's 'Jumps Boys' documentary when Last Instalment beat him at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival in 2011, second sucks.
As was the case 12 months ago, First Lieutenant led up the run-in but couldn't hold out, and you simply don't win Gold Cups if a strong finish isn't in your armoury. It was an improvement on his earlier turns this term, but the same can be said of Nicky Henderson's game victor. Winning is a habit and it's not one that First Lieutenant has ever fully mastered.
He won't win a Cheltenham Gold Cup, so, if Cue Card runs in it, his best chance of Prestbury Park glory ahead of a return to Aintree may be the Ryanair Chase that he finished second in to that horse last March.
Rubi Ball also contributed in no small way to the thrilling Grade One, but a tendency to jump big and preference for testing ground means that he is no potential Gold Cup winner, either. Gigginstown Stud's other runner Sir Des Champs ran an indifferent race in fifth.
In being beaten six-and-a-bit lengths on his effective reappearance, he probably performed no worse than he did on his 2012 return when five lengths behind Flemenstar in Punchestown's John Durkan.
With that in mind, notwithstanding that he will be a more potent prospect come the Hennessy Gold Cup in February, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that he is making any inroads into the seven-length deficit that split him and Bobs Worth in March. Time is running out.
Lord Windermere folded tamely after travelling and jumping well. That was uncharacteristic so maybe something was amiss, while Dessie Hughes' Lyreen Legend emerged with as much credit as any of the Irish horses in fifth under Bryan Cooper on his seasonal bow.
Having drifted to 6/1 after his Haydock flop, Bobs Worth once again deservedly heads the market to retain his Cheltenham crown at a top-priced 3/1. For all that he isn't flashy, he is an immensely likeable individual that finds enough when the chips are down, and that is the ultimate attribute.
Both Henderson and Geraghty excelled in their respective roles to get him back to fever pitch. In a way, the most satisfying thing to take out of his resounding return to form is that it would appear the Gold Cup hasn't left a permanent mark, as it has done with Long Run and so many others before.
Following Silviniaco Conti's fantastic King George VI Chase triumph under Noel Fehily, then, there is an unavoidable sense that the blue riband trophy is once again bound for either Nicholls' Ditcheat stable or Henderson's Lambourn base for a sixth time in eight years next March.
LATEST SOLWHIT INJURY A CONCERN FOR BYRNES
Solwhit's defection from the woodiesdiy.com Christmas Hurdle left the way clear for Zaidpour to claim a third Grade One success of his career on Saturday.
Charles Byrnes' injury-plagued stable star must undergo further tests before the reason for his lameness can be ascertained, but it is a worrying development. His absence was a blow to the merit of the three-miler, which boasted top-level status for a first time.
That will have mattered little to Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh, who were claiming a somewhat belated first Grade One of the week with Zaidpour.
It was also the middle leg of a treble for them on the day, with Walsh steering Sure Reef (5/2 favourite) to victory in the maiden hurdle and Djakadam (11/8 favourite) to a debut success over fences in the beginners' chase.
GOONYELLA CAN'T RISE TO WELSH CHALLENGE
Jim Dreaper's Goonyella failed to make any real impact en route to coming home a disappointing eighth of the nine finishers in Saturday's Welsh National.
The marathon Chepstow slog was won by Richard Lee's Mountainous under a fantastic Paul Moloney ride. A native of New Inn, Tipperary, Moloney brought the 20/1 outsider through with a timely challenge to lead after the last.
Hawkes Point and Tidal Bay filled the minor places for Paul Nicholls, who is set to target the Aintree equivalent with last year's popular Lexus Chase hero, which will turn 13 on Wednesday.
ALL HOPE NOT YET LOST FOR SPRINTER SACRE
Sprinter Sacre could yet attempt to get his season back on track after Nicky Henderson revealed yesterday that the irregular heartbeat that caused him to be pulled up on his reappearance at Kempton on Friday had corrected itself.
"We're talking about cantering him again on Friday so you wouldn't rule out training him again this season," he said. "It's got to be a step at a time."
Henderson initiated a Grade One double on Saturday when Captain Cutter landed the Challow Hurdle at Newbury at 8/1. AP McCoy dropped the JP McManus-owned five-year-old right out early on, before staying on strongly to stretch his unbeaten hurdling record to three and earn quotes of between 7/1 and 12/1 for the Neptune Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham, a race that Willie Mullins' Faugheen is as low as 6/1 favourite for after his odds-on stroll at Limerick the same day.
91 Noel Fehily's running tally for the season following Vukovar's stylish win at Newbury on Saturday. That beats his previous personal best by two and leaves the in-form rider one ahead of Jason Maguire behind AP McCoy in the rider's table.