Sceaux good as veteran foils Min to produce another Mullins masterclass
They came to Punchestown contemplating retirement, but Un De Sceaux (11/4) defied Father Time once again, with Willie Mullins' evergreen 11-year-old ripping up the script to land a 10th Grade One triumph.
All the talk was of stablemate Min (8/13 favourite) - as it was 12 months ago with Douvan - but Un De Sceaux wasn't for budging, as Paul Townend steered him to his 23rd career success and back-to-back victories in the BoyleSports Champion Chase.
Townend went straight to the front from flagfall and Min simply had no answer to his relentless gallop.
"None of us are getting any younger, but this lad still has it," Townend said of the fans' favourite.
"It was some adrenalin rush, he was brave as a lion. I was actually a bit worried when I got to the start because he was a bit dead in himself doing the parade, but once we lined up he came alive under me. He is a horse of a lifetime."
Having only finished out of the frame four times in his 32 career starts, Un De Sceaux has been a thrill-a-minute experience for the O'Connell family from Cork and The Castle in Glanmire was the next port of call to continue their celebrations.
Part-owner Eamonn O'Connell came to the Kildare track hoping for nothing more than a clear round before being sent out to pasture, but Un De Sceaux was at his exuberant best from start to finish and no amount of rain could spoil their party; in fact, it was gleefully welcomed.
"I'll take any bucket of rain for him, anything, just a splash of water will do him. There was a lady a while ago giving me chips and she asked 'has it stopped raining yet?' and I said 'I hope not' because he just loves a cut in the ground," O'Connell said.
"We thought: 'Is he gone a bit flat in himself? Is he gone off it? Is he tiring out of the buzz?' We said we'd come here anyway and we might finish out in France and if he's not up to it, retire him. But I don't know where you come to the end of that horse. He's a superstar in our eyes."
Mullins admitted he has never had a horse quite like Un De Sceaux in his remarkable training career and he could have another potential superstar on his hands, with Klassical Dream (8/13 favourite) landing the Cheltenham-Punchestown double.
The Closutton maestro has already landed the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle four times and that's the route Klassical Dream - now sharing favouritism with 2019 winner Espoir D'Allen at around 5/1 - will take after Ruby Walsh added the Grade One Herald Champion Novice Hurdle to his Supreme success in March.
"Ruby said he was too settled and was not as pleased as he was in Cheltenham, but I thought in Cheltenham he just ran very free. You can't keep racing like that and I was much happier with today's performance," champion trainer Mullins said.
"Albeit the second horse (Gordon Elliott's 11/2 chance Felix Desjy) has been to Cheltenham and Aintree and had two very hard races. He's a fair machine and I'm happy to stay over hurdles and try and make a Champion Hurdle horse out of him."
The Gold Cup is on the radar next March for Elliott's Delta Work (13/8 favourite) after advertising his credentials once more with a bloodless success in the Grade One Dooley Insurance Group Champion Novice Chase under Davy Russell.
"He's ticked all the boxes as a novice and we all know how hard it is to make the step up into senior company. We won't know until he tries that, but he's in a good hotel and he's just a very good horse," Russell said of his blue riband credentials.
The champion jockey gained some compensation for his much-criticised ride when Delta Work was a close third behind Topofthegame and Santini in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham, but admitted that he would like a chance to do it all over again.
"It's pointless saying I wouldn't change something because I didn't win the race, so I would have to change something. I could have waited, I could have sent him on, I could have done a hundred different things," Russell said.
"I definitely agree that I should have done something different, but at the time I felt I was doing the right thing. But he didn't do that, that was different today. If he had done that at Cheltenham, it wouldn't have mattered what I'd have done.
"The beauty of that type of horse is that you get the opportunity to ride them again, I'm lucky enough that I got the opportunity. If I didn't get the opportunity then I'd be very upset and I wouldn't be able to put it right. We put it some way to bed but it still doesn't make up for... I'd no winner at the Festival so I can't go back."
Elliott landed a 25/1 double with Festival D'ex (9/1) strolling to victory in the €100,000 Goffs Land Rover Bumper under Jamie Codd, as the Meath trainer solidified his dominance in that sector this season.
The Festival's opener - in front of 17,464 on a rain-soaked day at the Kildare track - started in usual style, with Enda Bolger maintaining his reputation as 'King of the Banks' to land the Kildare Hunt Club Fr Sean Breen Memorial Chase for the seventh time since 2010.
It wasn't the expected result, however, with Blue Templar (11/2) getting the better of well-fancied stablemate Youcannotbeserious (4/5 favourite) to finally get his head in front after finishing third (2017) and second (2018) in one of the Festival's most famous contests for the Ladies Perpetual Cup.
Ray Barron did the needful in the saddle to prevail by just under four lengths - it was a 1-2 for Bolger and owner JP McManus - and Blue Templar is likely to come back for tomorrow's La Touche Cup over the same course but a longer 4m2f trip.
"I just said to the owner he's a patient man as he's an eight-year-old maiden! The other horse (Youcannotbeserious) is classier, but the experience around here told. He seems to be fine and fresh, and he ran twice last year as well," Bolger said.
McManus started and finished the day in the winner's enclosure as Joseph O'Brien's Front View (5/1) claimed the concluding Bumper, with Derek O'Connor gaining compensation having been brought down close to home at Naas in February.
"He was unlucky when brought down the last day, but we've always thought the world of him. He'd a lovely run the first day and the race worked out well. He jumps very well and is an exciting horse for novice hurdling next year," O'Brien said.
There was also a landmark success for John McConnell, as a change of tactics worked a treat with Pearl Of The West (12/1) landing the Killashee Handicap Hurdle to score his first Punchestown Festival winner.
Robbie Power waited patiently on the regular front runner to good effect as Naas native McConnell - who is now based in Bellewstown - scored at his local track to continue his steady rise through the training ranks.
"We didn't want to break her heart again so we said let's try something different and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. She handled it well and is a super talented mare," McConnell said.
"She's going to go for another big handicap hurdle, so maybe something like the Galway Hurdle and I'd also like to get a bit of black type with her. We'll mix it with the flat, but she jumps so well she probably has a better chance of winning over hurdles."