No sooner has the star established his status than the search has begun to find a rival to knock him off his pedestal. The memories of Best Mate's battling King George VI Chase victory had hardly faded before the baton of Cheltenham Gold Cup expectation, as far as Ireland's challenge is concerned, was handed yesterday to the raw six-year-old Beef Or Salmon, who dished up a decisive defeat to his elders in the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown.
On paper it was a tough call for Beef Or Salmon, who was pitched in against high-class, experienced senior opponents on only his third start over fences. But the chestnut, ably partnered by Timmy Murphy, justified his trainer Michael Hourigan's high opinion of him with room to spare.
On testing ground, Colonel Braxton and Foxchapel King took their five rivals along at a sensible gallop that never split the field and Beef Or Salmon, hacked quietly round by Murphy at the back, joined issue from the final bend, went past four rivals in the air with a mighty bound at the last and came in six lengths clear of Colonel Braxton, who slogged on to hold Harbour Pilot by a short-head. Foxchapel King took fourth place, but the favourite, First Gold, now seems a light of the past, fading badly to finish last.
"Taking the step I did today with the horse in that sort of company, I didn't want to shout my mouth off about it beforehand," said Hourigan. "But I can now. I always knew what I had and I knew he would jump round, and for him to put in a springheeled leap like that at the last after three miles in going like that shows just what calibre of horse he is. I doubt if I've ever seen that fence jumped better."
"He was very good, never missing a fence," added Murphy, "and really quickened when I gave him a slap after the last."
Beef Or Salmon, named after the regular main-course choice in an eating establishment where Hourigan has often attended functions, coped with the conditions and the step up to Grade One level like an old hand. From a tender career of just 13 races Beef Or Salmon has now won all three of his chases, a hurdle race, two bumpers and a point-to-point. He is generally 10-1 second favourite for the Gold Cup, although Coral are as short as 6-1, and his owner, Joe Craig, a retired bedding manufacturer from Northern Ireland, has turned down an offer of £400,000.
One measure of the Cajetano gelding's progress is that in his first race over fences just five weeks ago he beat Sackville a length and a half. Yesterday, on 8lb worse terms, he had the subsequent Tommy Whittle Chase winner labouring 16 lengths behind him in fifth. Comparisons with Hourigan's previous best performer, the marvellous Dorans Pride, winner of 30 races and placed in a Gold Cup, were inevitable and, in the trainer's view, in the youngster's favour.
"This horse has been special since I broke him in and he won his point-to-point in Clonmel by two fences," said Hourigan. "I always knew his future was going to be as a chaser, and he could be even better than Dorans Pride. This fellow has scope and can jump so easy, where Dorans Pride was small and, although his heart was huge, jumping was always an effort for him."
Another tilt at top company is on the menu for Ireland's rising starlet, in the Hennessy Gold Cup back at the Co Dublin track in early February. He will be entered in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, as well at the two novice contests at the Festival, the Arkle Trophy and the Royal & SunAlliance Chase.
Those at Leopardstown were treated to not only the gilded promise of youth but the pure gold of experience. In the Christmas Hurdle the Bowe family's remarkable Limestone Lad avenged his defeat in the race 12 months ago by Bannow Bay and won his 35th race in the process. Ireland's darling, who turns 11 on Wednesday, made all the running, quickened away from Boss Doyle and Bannow Bay as soon as Paul Carberry made the request, and came over the final flight to a huge ovation.
The Stayers' Hurdle is his Festival target and it seems reasonable to prophesy that Coolnagorna, who concluded a lucrative Christmastide for the Jonjo O'Neill stable with a 29-length success in the Grade One feature at Newbury, the Challow Hurdle, could one day be a rival in the marathon division. The five-year-old operated like, according to his jockey, Tony McCoy, "a machine", and is heading for the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle. He provided the third leg of a 48.5-1 four-timer for the unstoppable Ulsterman.
Equally determined is Pat Eddery, who may yet make a rare visit to Wolverhampton on Tuesday in search of his 28th century in 29 years. The 50-year-old, 11 times Flat champion, brought his annual score to 99 on Dunhill Star at Lingfield yesterday but is ruled out of tomorrow's meeting at the Surrey track by a ban.