Well, you would think that might settle it. Even in defeat, mind you, Flemenstar contrived to reiterate his quality. Raised in class as well as distance at Leopardstown yesterday, he still seemed to be tanking along when Andrew Lynch finally permitted him the lead on the home turn. Throughout the Lexus Chase, he had been suffused with the same brio that had overwhelmed rivals at two and a half miles or shorter. And, having been restrained over the longer trip, he took up the running so smoothly that many were deceived he would gallop clear as usual. After all, he only had one more fence to jump.
As soon as he had done so, however, it was as though a switch had been turned off. His stamina suddenly spent, Flemenstar began to flounder. First Lieutenant, with characteristic courage, renewed his challenge. Even as he went half a length up in the final strides, however, he was in turn collared in the shadow of the post by Tidal Bay, who had been going nowhere in the back straight. Sir Des Champs, another taken off his feet, was seeing things out just as strongly on the outside and only just failed to collar Flemenstar for third.
Disappointing though it was, for those romantics who had hoped to see David beat the Goliaths in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup, Flemenstar palpably remains a top prospect at shorter distances. He would be hard to beat over an intermediate trip in the Ryanair Chase, but the dream now must surely be a showdown with Sprinter Sacre in the Queen Mother Champion Chase back at two miles. One way or another, the Casey family still have a horse in their tiny stable to be envied by the game's biggest spenders.
The winner's rejuvenation goes a long way to explaining why Paul Nicholls should be among the handful of top trainers whose hegemony has made such a throwback of Flemenstar. Tidal Bay is about to turn 12, and Ruby Walsh adroitly controlled his mount's established quirks by challenging between rivals late, but the old horse has a proven relish for the hill at Cheltenham and would have to be taken seriously in a Gold Cup on soft ground.
"Everyone was in the same boat," Walsh said. "We all knew Flemenstar's stamina had to be tested, and the tempo was upped all the way. It was a real true-run contest. When I was starting to niggle I thought: 'Good. It's going to be a test.' And he's just a different horse this year."
In the absence of Big Buck's, however, Walsh did suggest connections might have a tempting alternative in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle. In which case, yesterday's result could yet prove most auspicious for Bobs Worth, who had beaten First Lieutenant and Tidal Bay on his reappearance at Newbury.
Sir Des Champs also took a big step forward, having needed the run when blitzed by Flemenstar on his reappearance, but still needs to brush up his jumping. Pandorama showed little on his comeback from a long absence, but more had been expected from Hidden Cyclone and it was alarming to see him tail off so quickly after briefly asserting out of the back straight.
Immediate signals from the Flemenstar camp were mixed. Peter Casey, his veteran trainer, felt that the horse had "boiled over a little bit" and wondered whether he might have been better served by the customary, positive tactics. Lynch suggested coming back for the Hennessy Gold Cup, over course and distance in February, if conditions were less demanding. But Francis Casey, assistant to his father, took this first defeat in eight starts in good heart. "He was too free the whole way and just emptied," he said. "The ground was terribly tacky and he didn't get home. It's disappointing – but it's taken the pressure off!"
While intimating Flemenstar would still get an entry in the Gold Cup, he mischievously suggested that Sprinter Sacre might be "shaking in his boots". The sponsors make Bobs Worth 7-2 from 9-2 for the Gold Cup, with Tidal Bay 8-1 from 20-1 and First Lieutenant 12-1 from 16-1. Sir Des Champs remains 7-1, while Flemenstar is out to 12-1.
Walsh had already won a Grade One novice chase in the same Graham Wylie silks on Back In Focus, who just wore down his stablemate, Aupcharlie, on the line. Their trainer, Willie Mullins, significantly pronounced that Back In Focus "has the RSA Chase written all over him" and he looks interesting at 12-1 with William Hill.
Mullins hopes that Hurricane Fly can retrieve his status as the horse to beat in the Champion Hurdle, having been leapfrogged in several lists by Darlan at Kempton on Boxing Day, when he faces just four rivals in the Istabraq Hurdle on today's card.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Blackwater King (3.25 Doncaster)
Buxom (1.50 Doncaster)