The tenure of Bobs Worth as new favourite for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup could well prove a brief one, should either Flemenstar or Sir Des Champs establish a definitive superiority in their showdown at Punchestown on Sunday. But these are by no means the only young prospects stimulating a sense of renewal in Irish jump racing. For while Bobs Worth can hardly be counted an overnight sensation, with Cheltenham Festival wins already to his name over both hurdles and fences, yesterday's card at Fairyhouse volunteered breakthrough performances by emerging stars in both disciplines.
None had greater éclat than Arvika Ligeonnaire, who produced a breathtaking display in the Drinmore Novice Chase. Having returned from a long absence with a stylish chasing debut at Punchestown in May, he almost seemed intent on making up for lost time when charging into the lead under Ruby Walsh, soon opening up by fully 20 lengths. His four distant pursuers pinned their hopes on the possibility that his exuberance might leave him vulnerable in the closing stages, but he was still tanking along as he turned into the straight and was merely pushed out to see off Dedigout by 11 lengths.
The hallmarks of this performance, over the intermediate trip of two and a half miles, had been slick jumping and tremendous energy – and Arvika Ligeonnaire's obvious Festival target would seem to be the Racing Post Arkle Chase, for which he is 7-1 from 16-1 with Paddy Power. "He was just relentless and I'd have no worries going back in trip with him," Walsh said. "He was a bit keen and took me on, he went some gallop. He really attacks his fences, and has always had a big engine."
Willie Mullins is already entertaining a drop back in trip. "He has a tremendous cruising speed and we wouldn't be afraid to go back to two miles," the champion trainer confirmed. "That's maybe his job. He was very fast over the first four fences. But he has the jumping ability, along with the pace. His jumping was fantastic."
Mullins is eager to give the seven-year-old more experience, starting at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting. Connections of Dedigout, meanwhile, had every reason to be satisfied, as he pulled well clear of the rest. Stamina is his forte and, still lightly raced, Dedigout could yet enter the equation for the RSA Chase at the Festival.
This was one of three Grade Ones on the card, all sponsored by Bar One Racing, from which Mullins and Walsh would end up with two winners and a second. Zaidpour won the Hatton's Grace Hurdle, too determined for Voler La Vedette after she had moved smoothly into the lead as the field bunched on the home turn. The mare is missing her old spark just now, and was ultimately overtaken by Monksland for second, as Zaidpour was driven out to win by two and a half lengths. Mullins indicated that the winner would be aimed at the Ladbrokes World Hurdle in March, and the sponsors cut his odds from 25-1 to 12-1.
Nonetheless, it requires a vivid imagination to picture Zaidpour proving the horse competent finally to end the reign of Big Buck's. The champion had looked as good as ever on his reappearance at Newbury the previous day, outclassing three inferiors as he coasted to his 18th consecutive success.
Zaidpour's connections had also hoped to land the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, arguably the most competitive race in the division so far, with Champagne Fever. But last season's top bumper horse could not draw the string from Jezki, who headed him on the run-in before edging a length and a half clear – completing a fine weekend for Barry Geraghty, who had ridden Bobs Worth to win the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury. Jezki had tended to jump left but has now won all three starts over timber, and Jessica Harrington will now prepare him for the William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival – for which the sponsors halved his price to 8-1.
"He'll have at least one more run before Cheltenham," Harrington said. "He's only four and is bound to improve a bit for more experience. I was a little bit worried about going right-handed for the first time. But he was straight and true where it mattered, and when they were going a bit quicker he concentrated more. He has always wanted better ground. The whole family want it on top."
Like Dedigout, Champagne Fever is no lost cause with longer trips in mind. Another smart novice, meanwhile, announced himself when Our Conor followed up his debut success at Navan in the juvenile hurdle. His trainer, Dessie Hughes, saluted him as "a natural" and is another with Leopardstown at Christmas on his agenda. Coral quote Our Conor at 12-1 for the JCB Triumph Hurdle.
CHRIS McGRATH'S NAP: Lyric Ballad (4.00 Wolverhampton)
Has been learning the ropes in maidens and really seemed to cotton on in her third spin.
NEXT BEST: Chookie Hamilton (1.25 Wolverhampton)
Immediate rejuvenation from this veteran when well backed on his first start for a new stable round here last week.
ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR: Chief Executive (Mikael Magnusson), a well-bred juvenile in shrewd hands, made a promising start when fourth at Wolverhampton last week, travelling sweetly until flattening out late.
WHERE THE MONEY'S GOING: Teaforthree is 6-1 from 8-1 for the Coral Welsh National with William Hill.