THE Willie Mullins-trained Quel Esprit made sure he is in the running for the Cheltenham Gold Cup with a workmanlike success in the Grade One Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Sunday.
A talented novice hurdler, the French-bred endured a torrid time in his first season over fences but came good this term with easy victories over modest opposition at Naas and Thurles. Punters made Quel Esprit favourite and, after chasing Bostons Angel early on, he took over from the fourth fence and kept on under pressure from Ruby Walsh to see off the challenge of Roberto Goldback by a couple of lengths.
This was the second Gold Cup victory in race for Walsh, and the eighth for the trainer, but how the winner would rate against the likes of Florida Pearl is questionable. Walsh will remain loyal to Kauto Star at Cheltenham, with Paul Townend taking over on Quel Esprit, but this will be a completely kettle of fish to Sunday’s race.
Long Run, the current holder of chasing’s blue riband, still remains the one to beat but it would be great to see Quel Esprit run into the money at the Cotswolds circuit.
Last Instalment from the Philip Fenton yard kept his unbeaten record over fences intact when he landed the Grade One Novice Chase over two mile and five furlongs in the very capable hands of Davy Russell.
Setting off in front, the Anshan gelding seemed to be enjoying himself as jumped from fence to fence except from the second last where he got in a shade close but had the brains to right himself. The Mullins pair Call The Police and Lambro chased him all the way but were never able to get on terms as Last Instalment kept finding enough in the straight to take the money by a length and a half.
The Edward O’Grady runner Shot From The Hip was last of the four runners after appearing to be within a shout at the penultimate fence. Tackling the trip for the first time, at first glance it would appear that he failed to get home in the tacky ground.
In his post race remarks Fenton revealed that RSA Chase at Cheltenham will be on the agenda, but only if the ground is on the soft side. If that comes to pass he will cross swords with the highly-regarded Grands Crus as well as First Lieutenant, which is also owned by Michael O’Leary of Gigginstown House Stud.
Although he saddled beaten favourites in both Grade One hurdles Mullins still managed to complete a three-timer, which was initiated by the Craigsteel mare Catleen in the two mile and two mares handicap hurdle.
A well-supported favourite, Catleen raced well of the pace early on but made steady headway to be on the premises turning to face the judge. Hitting the front on the approach to the final flight, she kept on well to beat A Country Girl by a length and three-parts.
Having joined the Mullins team this season Catleen ran well at Tramore before scoring at Limerick. She seems to be on the upgrade and if the handicapper gives her a chance she is capable of adding to her collection.
Pique Sous completed the three-timer with a smooth success in the bumper. Partnered by the trainer’s son Patrick, the five-year-old had not raced since the back end of last season when he finished third at Fairyhouse. He showed enough on that occasion to suggest that he was useful, an impression that was confirmed when he led off the home turn and always had the measure of the Dermot Weld contender Dancers Dilemma.
Mullins still has to sort out his team for the Cheltenham bumper. This fellow might well feature among the travellers.
Dermot Weld always has a small but select bunch of jumpers in training to shorten the Winter months and in Hisaabaat he has a horse that might well be a strong contender for the Triumph Hurdle.
Runner-up in all his three starts over hurdles, the son of Dubawi landed the opening Grade One Juvenile hurdle in fine style. Given a confident ride by Andrew Lynch he arrived on the scene at the last flight of hurdles, hitting the wire a length and a half ahead of Shadow Character.
Weld revealed that first-time blinkers helped Hisaabaat to concentrate better. With the possibility of good ground at Cheltenham he is expecting a bold effort from his charge.