It was Rule Supreme that inflicted the damage to Michael Hourigan's Gold Cup hopeful. In the process he continued the incredible domination of the race by his trainer, Willie Mullins. Six of the past seven runnings of the Grade One event have now gone to the Co Carlow man, with Florida Pearl and Alexander Banquet being his other scorers.
Rule Supreme may now contest the Gold Cup, rather than his previous Cheltenham target, the World Hurdle. But the real question is where does this leave the challenge to Best Mate. Following his comprehensive defeat of Henrietta Knight's charge in the Lexus Chase at Christmas, Beef Or Salmon had looked to be Ireland's leading Gold Cup hope. Yesterday, though, his effort petered out as he approached the last fence alongside Rule Supreme. Finding very little, he finished a disappointing 14 lengths adrift of the 11-2 victor at the line.
"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. "It's a headache for us, but at least we have some excuse," 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 already successfully navigated Cheltenham to win last year's Royal & SunAlliance Chase. His talent stretches further than chasing, though, and he also scored in last summer's French Champion Hurdle. That versatility had prompted Mullins to aim the gelding at the World Hurdle. A rapid reconsideration is now in order.
"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."