AFTER a week that saw him at the centre of headlines, Philip Fenton enjoyed a welcome boost at Naas where his Real Steel claimed Grade Two honours in the Paddy Power Shops Better Value Novice Hurdle.
Fenton has had to keep his counsel after being charged with possessing unlicensed substances – including anabolic steroids – following a visit to his yard by the Department of Agriculture in January 2012.
The court case has been adjourned until next month, but the Tipperary trainer has had to get on with the business of getting his horses ready for the races and he seems to be doing that pretty effectively judged on yesterday's evidence.
Like his big Gold Cup hope, Last Instalment, Real Steel is owned by the Gigginstown House Stud and like their Cheltenham candidate, Brian O'Connell's mount showed a willing attitude from the front to beat Willie Mullins' 13/8 favourite Vicky De L'Oasis by three-and-a-quarter lengths.
JP McManus had two runners in the race, with Tony McCoy trailing home last aboard disappointing second favourite City Slicker, but the owner's other runner Minella Foru put in a solid shift to claim the third spot.
Afterwards, Fenton admitted that he was slightly surprised by the success of his 7/1 shot. "He was the lowest-rated horse in the race and I didn't think he was capable of winning," said the trainer. "He's improved and he jumped better today."
Willie Mullins further strengthened his formidable hand for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at Cheltenham as Killultagh Vic produced a scintillating display in the finale.
Mullins has saddled eight previous winners of the Grade One contest and already had Graham Wylie-owned pair Black Hercules and Shaneshill disputing favouritism with most bookmakers for this year's renewal.
Killultagh Vic (2/1) appeared to have his work cut out to follow up a recent course win as he faced Tony Martin's 4/6 favourite Golantilla, making his first appearance since finishing third in last year's Champion Bumper.
However, Killultagh Vic set a strong gallop under the trainer's son, Patrick, and while Golantilla loomed up ominously in the straight, the Mullins runner showed thrilling acceleration to put the race to bed, coming home 16 lengths clear.
Pizarro (2002) and Hairy Molly (2006) both won the same Naas bumper before going on to Cheltenham glory.
Mullins, meanwhile, is looking forward to Prestbury Park with a very strong team. "I got a text from Ruby (Walsh) coming down off the stands saying he's another one for the boat. I think he's right," he stated.
"He's improving with every run and that was a terrific performance. After making the pace, which was pretty decent, he really quickened off it.
"The horse that won on Saturday at Fairyhouse (Westhorpe) will have to go to Cheltenham as well, so it looks like we have four at the moment."
Killultagh Vic starred in a double for the champion trainer, with Mozoltov surviving a first-fence howler before predictably proving a different class to his two opponents in the Nas Na Riogh Novice Chase.
The 2/13 favourite almost parted company with Bryan Cooper as he hit the first fence, but he still eased to a 35-length victory over fellow Gigginstown-owned runner Folsom Blue.
Mullins said: "I think he's in the JLT (Novices' Chase at Cheltenham). We'll see how he comes out of this before we make any plans."
The champion trainer suffered a setback when his hot favourite Twinlight (4/11) finished last of the three runners in the two-mile conditions chase as Henry de Bromhead's 4/1 shot Days Hotel repeated last year's success in the race, beating runner-up Toner D'Oudairies by just over five lengths.
Earlier, Kevin Prendergast enjoyed his first jumps winner in 10 years as the Adrian Heskin-ridden Katie T (5/1) got the better of odds-on favourite Shield and McCoy in the opening maiden hurdle.
McCoy enjoyed better luck in the two-mile handicap hurdle as 7/4 favourite Getoutwhenyoucan completed a hat-trick for trainer Charlie Swan.
The Ronan McNally-trained See Double You justified 2/1 favouritism in the staying handicap chase under a typically cool Paul Carberry ride.