Beef or salmon, widely considered as the chief threat to Best Mate in next month's Cheltenham Gold Cup, suffered a shock reverse at Leopardstown yesterday as Rule Supreme continued the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup domination of Willie Mullins.
Six of the past seven renewals of the Grade One showpiece have now gone to the Co Carlow trainer, courtesy also of the much-loved Florida Pearl and Alexander Banquet.
But the real story was Ireland's leading Gold Cup candidate having his colours lowered. Following his comprehensive defeat of Best Mate in the Lexus Chase at Christmas, Michael Hourigan's charge was sent off the 8-15 favourite yesterday to land his third big win of the campaign.
However, his dream run was brought to an end after challenging Rule Supreme at the second-last fence and finding very little, finishing a disappointing second - 14 lengths adrift of the 11-2 victor.
"The winner is obviously very good and has stayed it out," Hourigan said. "He was bang there in the Lexus when he fell and we have been beaten fair and square. Paul [Carberry, the jockey] said he felt beat going to the second-last."
Beef Or Salmon was tested by the stewards immediately after the race and was found to have an infection of the upper respiratory tract , offering some consolation for his supporters. "It's a headache to us but at least we have some excuse. It's there and he just couldn't run with it," Hourigan added.
"He'll have a couple of days in the paddock to get rid of it and then we'll start again."
Carberry said: "He didn't give me the same feel he did at Christmas. I was struggling three out and he didn't pick up. He gurgled turning for home."
Beef Or Salmon is now as big as 12-1 with Ladbrokes for the Gold Cup, having been 6-1 before the race, while the impressive winner is 10-1 from 25-1 with the same firm - although Coral and Totesport go just 8-1.
William Hill clipped Best Mate to 5-2, from 3-1, with Rule Supreme 12-1 from 40-1 and Beef Or Salmon 8-1 from 11-2.
Rule Supreme had been contesting second place alongside Best Mate when he fell at the last in the Lexus and had managed to navigate Cheltenham to land last year's Royal & SunAlliance Chase. The nine-year-old has shown that his talent stretches further than chasing, scoring in last summer's French Champion Hurdle and finishing fast to take a close third in the Long Walk Hurdle at Windsor in December.
That versatility is likely to cause a headache for Mullins, who has long had the Festival's World Hurdle as Rule Supreme's main target.
"I've always said that if you have a horse with half a chance of winning the Gold Cup to go for it," said Mullins. "He'll love the extra trip and has won on the track but we'll have to have a long talk about it.
"I'll leave him in both races and make my mind up nearer the time. The ground doesn't make a difference to him, but he jumps better on good ground. He made one little mistake early on, but jumped very well and has a tremendous engine."