If there is one race at the Cheltenham Festival that brings a particular smile to Irish eyes, it's the Champion Bumper, taken only five times by the home side since its introduction 20 years ago. And chief among the successful raiders has been Ireland's serial champion trainer Willie Mullins, with six victories.
Surprisingly, perhaps, given Mullins' relish for finding the right one for the contest, just three of his runners have started favourite, with only Missed That, in 2005, justifying support. But the Co Carlow stable looks likely to provide the market leader this year after Champagne Fever redeemed a slightly dented reputation at Fairyhouse yesterday.
The grey five-year-old had showed his inexperience when beaten last month on his bumper debut but made no mistake at the second attempt, drawing right away for a 13-length success under his trainer's son Patrick. "He was very green the last day," said Mullins Snr, "but we've taught him a bit since then and I should think he's probably top of our bumper pecking order."
Champagne Fever, now a 10-1 shot in most lists for his March assignment, completed a good day for Mullins as the last leg of a four-timer and carried on a remarkable season at the Co Meath track for owner Rich Ricci. All of the investment banker's nine runners there this term have won, including two other Cheltenham contenders yesterday, the novice hurdler Vesper Bell and rapidly improving chaser Blazing Tempo.
The last-named, who opened her campaign back in July by taking the Galway Plate, outstayed the odds-on favourite Noble Prince to take the Grade Two feature, the Normans Grove Chase, by three-quarters of a length under Ruby Walsh in a tight battle to the line. Bookmakers cut her odds for the Ryanair Chase (she is now as short as 8-1) but Mullins made no commitment to the 21-furlong Festival showpiece.
"The soft ground didn't help her today," he said, "but Ruby rode a beauty, quiet as a mouse all the way, just waiting for one crack at the favourite, and it worked. She's held her form well, she's a bit of an iron mare and versatile too. She'll probably go to Cheltenham for something but I'm not sure she'd be good enough for the Ryanair."
Despite his defeat, the Paul Nolan-trained Noble Prince remains at the head of the Ryanair Chase market, alongside Henrietta Knight's charge Somersby, top of the home defence after his stirring Victor Chandler Chase victory at Ascot on Saturday. His immediate victim Finian's Rainbow is likely to remain at two miles for the Champion Chase, for which he is third favourite behind Sizing Europe and Big Zeb.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Mission Complete (2.15 Wetherby)
Dour stayer who has ground his way to three wins from four runs this term and may have enough left to offer to cope with his rise up the ratings.
Next best: Johnson's Cat (3.00 Wolverhampton)
Making his debut on today's surface, but if he adapts his best turf performances put him in the mix in a modest contest.
One to watch: Glenwood Knight (Donald McCain)
The hurdles rating of Glenwood Knight, who produced another clumsy effort over fences on Saturday, would make him an interesting prospect in marathon contests over the smaller obstacles.
Where the money's going: According to Pete
According To Pete has been introduced into the Grand National market at 25-1, after his Peter Marsh Chase victory over three miles in testing ground at Haydock on Saturday.
- More about: