Sir Des prevails to set Gold standard
Mullins' charge building nicely for Festival charge, writes Ian McClean
Just the nine then? That is the number of times Willie Mullins has now won Ireland's most prestigious Hennessy Gold Cup and yesterday at Leopardstown the yard's Sir Des Champs comprehensively reversed previous form with people's favourite Flemenstar in a race that, for once, answered more questions than it asked.
Florida Pearl was a four-time winner of Leopardstown's flagship race but frustratingly never quite translated the supremacy when it came to the Cheltenham edition. In defeating Flemenstar by a decisive margin, Mullins will be hoping his new kid on the block will be able to provide him with his first winner in jump racing's premier prize in five weeks' time.
With just four runners – two supplied by Mullins – the event was always going to be tactical. Many expected Andrew Lynch to maximise Flemenstar's exuberant jumping by taking the initiative from the off, but the plan proved the exact reverse as the Peter Casey runner stalked the two Mullins runners. Sir Des Champs appeared to have ironed out the kinks in his jumping and, whilst never spectacular, he was at least efficient. This was particularly evident at the second last, where Flemenstar jumped upsides the winner only to be restrained once more by Lynch for a later effort.
However, it was evident as Davy Russell kicked for home that Flemenstar wasn't going to be capable of launching the expected overdrive and, in truth, Sir Des Champs had put the race to bed by the last, where Russell even had the luxury of allowing the horse to shorten into it.
When asked about the tactics of the second afterwards, Russell was fairly definitive: "I think I'd have beaten him either way."
Mullins didn't surprise anybody either when he described how "our horses typically improve 10lbs from the Lexus to the Hennessy". A more pertinent point is how much more the seven-year-old might improve between now and the Festival. Sir Des Champs is now as low as 7/2 for the Gold Cup.
The race also helped Casey with Flemenstar's Festival target. "He had every chance and was out-stayed," he said. "There'll be no Gold Cup for him and we'll have to decide whether he goes for the Champion Chase or the Ryanair."
While Sir Des Champs was enhancing his Gold Cup claims at Leopardstown, Silvianaco Conti was matching him hoof for hoof across at Newbury in the Denman Chase. Ruby Walsh remained typically ice-cool as French import Mail de Bievre set a merry dance out front. He and The Giant Bolster took over in the straight and Silvianaco Conti belied his trainer's fitness concerns in the deteriorating conditions by disposing of last year's Gold Cup runner-up with some authority.
"If he improves as much from the Charlie Hall as he did to the Betfair Chase he will run a big race in the Gold Cup," Walsh said afterwards. "He's a gem. He's got plenty of scope. There's lots to like about him."
David Bridgewater, trainer of The Giant Bolster, was far from despondent either with his runner-up: "I'm chuffed to bits. Cheltenham is a different track and this is the one they want to be worried about. I can guarantee I have missed more work than the other horse."
Bobs Worth may have seen his odds shorten for the Blue Riband by remaining at home over Christmas, but it was the turn of his two main rivals to take market advantage yesterday from the favourite's continued absence.
A week may be a long time in politics but it is an eternity at Nicky Henderson's Seven Barrows stables. Less than a week after the sickening loss of one the yard's brightest young stars, the trainer unveiled a fresh one in My Tent or Yours, which made a mockery of what is supposed to be one of the most competitive handicaps on the calendar, The Betfair Hurdle. Owned by JP McManus, the ante-post gamble simply toyed with the opposition to win by five lengths, hardly coming off the bridle.
"It was a funny race," Henderson, surpassing Ryan Price's record in the race, said afterwards. "You normally expect a furious gallop in these competitive handicaps but AP (McCoy) was very brave and dropped him right out. It was impressive that he quickened in that ground as I thought the better the ground the better he'll be."
It is ironic that the ill-fated Darlan would have won this very contest last year but for a late fall and his loss at Doncaster last Monday deprived his owner of his leading Champion Hurdle contender.
My Tent or Yours was immediately promoted to favouritism (9/4) for the opening contest at the Festival (Supreme Novice), but with JP also having Jezki in his green-and-gold silks, it precipitates the tantalising possibility of yesterday's winner (which won off 149) being supplemented for the Champion itself. Paddy Power was quoting him at 8/1 "with a run".