Beef Or Salmon's eagerly-anticipated return to action at Clonmel yesterday was perhaps a reflection of his fortunes last season. A rapid surge into top-rank contention brought to a sudden halt, with a Henrietta Knight-trained horse carrying Jim Culloty in Jim Lewis's maroon and blue silks taking the glory.
At Cheltenham in March, after a glittering novice campaign, the Gold Cup itself was the ask too far, the young horse falling at the third obstacle as Best Mate galloped to glory. Yesterday in Co Tipperary, in the Clonmel Oil Chase, it was the final fence that got in the way. Beef Or Salmon hurtled towards it full of running, seemingly sure to collar trailblazing Edredon Bleu, only to hit the birch hard. This time, the seven-year-old stayed on his feet, but with all momentum gone and did exceptionally well to finish a close third.
But his misfortune should not detract from Edredon Bleu's performance. At the age of 11, the old warrior is as sprightly as ever - he came to the fray two for two this term - and, fit as a flea and jumping like one too, he made the two and a half mile Grade 2 contest a proper test.
After a bit of scrimmaging as the tapes went up he did not actually get to the front until he jumped past The Premier Cat and Al Capone at the first, but thereafter was never headed.
Beef Or Salmon, the 4-5 favourite, lobbed along near the back until Timmy Murphy moved him through to pick off rivals as the field went out on the final circuit. His jumping, though, was adequate rather than spring-heeled and going to the third-last, he was off the bridle and under pressure.
But after the penultimate fence, he caught his second wind and suddenly began to run, powering down on the leaders.
With Murphy aiming boldly for a gap between Edredon Bleu and the rails he took off almost level with the leader, but his mistake made him land steep and lose his footing and as he bounced and scrambled to stay upright Murphy's stickability was thoroughly tested.
But as Edredon Bleu left one danger behind, another appeared. Arctic Copper's late surge brought him level on the run-in, but no more than that. The old warrior's competitive instincts are as sharp as ever and you could almost see the thought-bubble "Oh yeah? You and whose army?" floating above his head as he stuck it out to reduce his rival to the 15th runner-up spot of his career.
"They crowded me at the start and he couldn't jump off in front as usual," said Culloty, "but that probably played to my advantage as it got the horse's blood up. The ground was a bit patchy, but he jumped super, as usual. Going to the last I caught Beef Or Salmon coming in the corner of my eye, but then heard something hit the fence and then I just concentrated on beating the other horse."
The victory was the first for Knight in Ireland and the 22nd for her charge in a career that started over fences as a four-year-old in his native France.
The gelding, who operates best on fast ground, will now take his winter break in anticipation of wet weather.
The clash between the dashing veteran and Ireland's rising young star drew a record crowd of 5,500 to Clonmel. Beef Or Salmon hardly let them down; looking and running ring-rusty, he was only a length behind the two principals at the line and it is clear that his engine and gears are still functioning. Local firm Paddy Power were impressed enough to cut him to two points to 8-1 for the Gold Cup. And though Murphy was understandably frustrated, trainer Michael Hourigan was happy enough. "Very pleased," he said, "I think he would have been more fluent with a run under his belt. We didn't get a chance to even give him a racecourse gallop because of the dry autumn. He has been schooled over fences, but he hasn't run over them since March and I think you will see a different horse next time."
That may be in the John Durkan at Punchestown in 16 days' time, en route to a tilt at a repeat win in the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown on 28 December. Tomorrow, Culloty will have another chance to measure Gold Cup opposition when Best Mate himself takes on a clutch of contenders in the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon. "He's in great form," added Knight, "and we're looking forward it. We've left Terry [Biddlecombe] at home to mind him and the others and we came here to take our minds off things for a couple of days."