The Willie Mullins-trained Champagne Fever took a step towards a tilt at the Cheltenham Gold Cup with an impressive victory in Clonmel.
In his first outing of the season the seven-year-old was considered forward enough to do himself justice. Punters heeded the advice and sent him off favourite, in spite of the presence of Sizing Europe.
Given a textbook ride by Paul Townend, Champagne Fever was held up early on but pulling hard. Townend wisely allowed him to dispute the lead before turning to face the judge, from where he pulled clear to win by eight lengths from the Tom Mullins runner Alderwood.
By any standards this was as good a display as one could wish to see. With its undulations Clonmel is a stiff track and after the incessant rain the ground was officially heavy, which meant stamina was at a premium.
Bigger tests lie ahead for the winner if he is to head to the Cotswolds in March as a live contender for chasing’s blue riband. The challenges begin with the King George on St Stephen’s Day. It will be interesting to see how he deals with the Grade One horses.
He had already shown his liking for Cheltenham, having already landed the Champion Bumper as well as the Supreme Novices Hurdle and looked a most unlucky loser when beaten a head in the Arkle Chase.
This was also a triumph for Kilkenny breeding as Champagne Fever was bred near Thomastown by John Cahill and is by the Kells-based stallion Stowaway.
Forever Bubbles, the dam of Champagne Fever, is by Roselier a French-bred stallion who stood with the late Pat Kinsella at Knockhouse Stud near Kilmacow and later with his son Sean.
Not an overly big horse, Roselier proved to be a phenomenal sire and was responsible for most of the top hurdlers and chasers during the ’80s and ’90s including Carvill’s Hill, who was bred in the village of Piltown by Paddy Walsh.
Alderwood ran a fine race to take the runner-up money in the hands of Mark Walsh despite one or two wayward leaps. There is still a decent pot to be won with him during the current campaign.
It must be said that Sizing Europe looked a shadow of other days as he trailed home in fifth. The 12-year-old was never travelling well and jockey Johnny Burke wisely decided not to be hard on him from the second last when he was fading rapidly.
An eight time Grade One winner the Pistolet Bleu gelding was supposed to be having his swansong when successful at Punchestown in April but connections felt that he was showing enough to go to the well one more time. On this evidence they will have to revisit that decision, but trainer Henry de Bromhead said no rush announcement will be made. The ground was heavier than ideal and he will wait and see how his charge comes out of the race before consulting with the owners.
Killultagh Vic looks sure to be part of the Mullins team for Cheltenham after he opened his hurdling account when taking the opening two and a half mile maiden hurdle.
A high class bumper horse the Old Vic gelding didn’t disappoint on his hurdling debut, but punters hardly lined their pockets as the odds were highly restrictive.
Paul Townend, standing in for the suspended Ruby Walsh, dictated a steady early pace which did not suit Killultagh Vic but it was sensible given the state of the ground.
In spite of missing out a hurdle or two the favourite still held a clear advantage on the downhill run to the straight. Townend only had to release an inch or so of rein for him to come home an easy four length winner from Virtuoso Rogue.
A step up in both grade and trip is now on the cards. By the time the Leopardstown Christmas meeting is over we should have a fair idea of where Killultagh Vic lies in the pecking order of our staying novice hurdlers.
Hurricane Fly recorded the 20th Grade One victory of his amazing career when he turned over the odds-on favourite and current Champion Hurdler Jezki to take the Morgiana Hurdle for the third time at Punchestown on Sunday.
Considered by many not to be the force of old, the 11-year-old showed that he is far from finished by sitting off the strong gallop set by Little King Robin, then came with a wet sail in the straight to pick off Jezki before the final flight and win by a length and a half.
Having been beaten by the latter at Cheltenham and Punchestown Hurricane Fly’s career looked to be in decline but he belied the doubters with a typical gutsy display.
The well-trodden route of Leopardstown at Christmas and the Irish Champion Hurdle in February is still the plan before attempting to regain he hurdling crown at Cheltenham. Given what we saw on Sunday it would be a brave man that would bet against him realising that goal.