Once the weights for the Grand National are safely announced, the need for coyness passes and all sorts of lights start to creep out from under bushels. The latest is Prince De Beauchene, with an insouciantly easy victory in the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse. The Willie Mullins-trained nine-year-old is now the new favourite, as short as 7-1 in some lists, for the Aintree showpiece.
Those seeking the requisite story to go with Prince De Beauchene need not look far, though it is more a morality tale than one of the fairy variety. Mullins inherited the Graham Wylie-owned gelding after Howard Johnson was warned off last year.
Prince De Beauchene, who is set to carry 10st 6lb at Aintree, had produced a promising performance on his first and only previous run from his new Co Carlow base, a good fifth under top weight in a handicap at Navan in November. He could be called the winner of yesterday's Grade Two contest some way out, allowed to power to the front by Paul Townend before the home straight before an eased-down six-length success from Black Apalachi.
"That was a nice bit of improvement from the last day," said his trainer with considerable understatement. The ground at the Co Meath track was testing, which Mullins considers not ideal for a pupil at the Closutton academy he is still getting to know. "I should think he'll like the better ground he'll probably get at Aintree," he added. "But he did everything nicely today and I should think there'll be more to come from him."
The last to follow up in the National after taking the Bobbyjo Chase was another Mullins inmate, Hedgehunter, seven years ago, and for the past four years the Fairyhouse contest has supplied the shortest-priced Irish runner in the National, most recently Mullins' The Midnight Club, who went on to finish sixth in the big one, and Black Apalachi, second.
Yesterday was 13-year-old Black Apalachi's first run since that day he chased home Don't Push It, contributing to an excellent day for veterans. At Kempton the 11-year-old Nacarat rolled back his years to win the Sunbury track's three-mile Grade Three feature chase for the second time in four years, his two victories sandwiching second and third places.
The front-running grey, so often the hapless hare for the likes of Kauto Star and Long Run round his favourite track, has retained all of his enthusiasm for his job and yesterday fought cheerfully back for Paddy Brennan in the straight after being overtaken by Hector's Choice. "He's always been a courageous horse," said trainer Tom George, "and when the sun came out and the ground got faster, that was just what he wanted."
The afternoon supplied a couple of runners-up to provoke different emotions in Dessie Hughes, for beforeBlack Apalachi's most gallant return to action came a narrow defeat at the other end of the age scale, courtesy of much-touted hurdling debutant Minsk.
The four-year-old's lack of experience over obstacles showed as he was out-jumped by much more streetwise Burrenbridge Lodge over the last two and outbattled on the run-in, to go down by a neck in the Fairyhouse opener. He will still go to Cheltenham for the Triumph Hurdle, but has lost his place as market leader. In the reshuffled betting for the juvenile crown, favouritism is now disputed by the pair who won at Kempton yesterday: Nacarat's stablemate Baby Mix, who put his contemporaries to the sword in the Adonis Hurdle, and Alan King-trained Grumeti, who won the all-aged Dovecote Hurdle easily.
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