Power worth weight in Gold as Sizing John goes distance
An ashen sky, sleet and cold made it a bit of a miserable day but the weather went out the window as five of the seven runners approached the final fence in the Stan James Irish Gold Cup almost all at once.
Road To Riches had cried enough and Don Poli remained in front but Sizing John and Empire Of Dirt were menacing. Given how we now expect Carlingford Lough to finish his race, his bid for a third successive win in this seemed more realistic than ever, while More Of That had bounced right back to his best; however, he would not negotiate the last.
Don Poli failed to find another gear and Robert Power would now have to ask Sizing John if he could get three miles for the first time. Though Empire Of Dirt closed gamely in the closing stages, the Jessica Harrington-trained well-backed 100/30 second-favourite had enough in hand to prevail.
It was a first win in the race for both the stable and Power, one of the most popular riders around and only returning to action the day before due to a spinal issue.
Power said: "I rode him work the other day and told Kate (Harrington) he was a certainty. He has a bit of speed but he always gave me the impression that he stays; I was 100pc certain he'd stay."
For Sizing John, which has finished behind Douvan seven times, that he does not have to take that one on again in the near future must be quite the relief. He is now a 10/1 chance for the Timico Gold Cup, if not certain to go there.
"Robert said they went very steady and he was a bit keen over the first three fences; he kept wanting to go," said Harrington.
"He said it was a good thing he made a mistake at the second-last first time around as he sort of spat it out after that. I know he didn't win very far but he still won and he wasn't stopping."
It was a day of firsts, indeed. Sean Flanagan's relationship with Noel Meade blossoms more with every passing day and his ride on Disko was beautiful to watch as the 6/1 chance made all in the Flogas Novice Chase.
There is something quite special about a bold-leaping grey. Disko was pestered for much of the race by the Harrington-trained Our Duke but he pulled out more and booked his place at Cheltenham, perhaps in the JLT.
Flanagan was sporting a blue cap in the race, which closer inspection revealed was inscribed with the name of JP McManus. He had borrowed it off a colleague and can only presume McManus didn't mind.
Meade said: "It's a great thrill to have one to jump as well that and it never really looked a problem: he was gaining ground at every fence.
"Everything seemed to be going really well and it's lovely to be able to watch something like that. It was the perfect ride. He jumped great for him and did everything right. He jumped that well he got the others in trouble."
Meade seems to be leaning towards the JLT, with Jamie Codd confirmed as A Genie In Abottle's rider in the National Hunt Chase at the Festival. Bellshill's future is up in the air after he fell when well-beaten.
Flanagan added: "He's had his little bits of problems here and there but today to me he's shown what he is. It's great to get that first Grade One win, although it's taken me a while to get it."
The Deloitte Novice Hurdle saw hot favourite Saturnas run no sort of race but stablemate Bacardys (12/1) just out-stayed another in Bunk Off Early under Patrick Mullins. "That's my first Grade One hurdle win and I was very lucky to be around to ride him," said the winning rider.
"I wanted to be handy but Willie told me to drop in and he said to drop in. They went quite quick."
His father added: "I'd imagine the way he stayed and jumped there we'll be looking for a trip. I didn't think there was much pace but obviously there was huge pace as Patrick came from last.
"He's had point-to-point experience so he'll be fine and that race will bring him on hugely as well. I'd imagine the Albert Bartlett would be the one for him but I have two or three others for the race so we'll see. Bunk Off Early can go to the Supreme."
Some bubbles seemed to blow up in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle, though two of the better-fancied horses jumped the last nicely clear.
Cheekpieces and rain contributed to a more straightforward performance from Mega Fortune, the victory of which helped to briefly increase Gordon Elliott's lead in the trainers' table over Mullins, who trains runner-up, Bapaume.
Davy Russell was positive on Chris Jones' 9/2 chance, which now goes to the Triumph Hurdle.
Elliott said: "We knew with a bit of ease in the ground and the cheekpieces today it was going to be a different story.
"We said we were going to make plenty of use of him today and make them work. Cheltenham will suit him.
"He has actually proved he can go on a bit nicer ground and we know he stays. You have to stay to win a Triumph Hurdle."
Mullins was happy with Bapaume and said he expected also-ran Meri Devie to improve for the experience. The JP McManus horses all struggled.
Tom Mullins struck in the second handicap hurdle with Grand Partner, ridden by his nephew Danny at 14/1, while Rachael Blackmore rode out her 5lb claim aboard Who's That (9/2) in the opening mares' handicap hurdle contest for Liam Cusack.
Blackmore's success as a pro has been an uplifting story and she said: "To have a winner today means a lot. I'm not sure I'd call myself an example to other females who want to go pro but it shows it can be done anyway."
Jessica Harrington doubled up when another cracking finish to the bumper saw Someday (3/1), ridden by her daughter Kate, bravely repel the newcomer Voix Des Tiep, which nearly earned the Mullins father-and-son pair their own double.
Though Foxrock won the hunter chase at 2/5, the run of On The Fringe in second was the main talking point. He travelled best until the last and will go to Cheltenham with a huge chance of a third Foxhunter success.