The novice chasers who did look the part last season have largely failed to do so since entering open company. Yet the one who finally made the grade, at Leopardstown yesterday, failed to get round in three of his first four steeplechases. For all that Quel Esprit did not beat a vintage field in the Hennessy Gold Cup, then, he may yet continue to confound expectations.
If anything, the grey now looks a fairly flamboyant jumper, his confidence having been restored by Willie Mullins with a couple of gentler assignments. And while this looked a pedestrian test, by Grade One standards, his performance qualifies him as Ireland's most eligible candidate for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup, for which he is 14-1 from 20-1 with the sponsors.
Under a positive ride by Ruby Walsh, he had most of his pursuers in trouble turning in. Though Roberto Goldback did throw down a challenge, responding well to blinkers, Quel Esprit seemed to idle on the run-in and was always retaining a two-length advantage.
Though Walsh pronounced the form "a stone" short of the standard required in the Gold Cup, Quel Esprit will at least relish the test of stamina and jumping. "He likes to go a really good gallop," Walsh said. "He was unlucky when he fell in his races last year. When we schooled the novices 18 months ago, he was the best jumper."
Mullins, saddling his eighth Hennessy winner, added: "We always thought he was a fantastic jumper at home, and were surprised when he fell a couple of times last year. He had a wind operation, which might have helped, or it could be that he's a stronger, more mature horse this season."
The champion trainer had a disappointing start to proceedings when Ut De Sivola trailed in a distant seventh behind Hisaabaat in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle. The winner had been second on his three previous starts, but this time Dermot Weld fitted him with blinkers and he was given a fine waiting ride by Andrew Lynch. Weld won this race last year with Unaccompanied, who went on to finish second in the JCB Triumph Hurdle, and Hisaabaat could certainly get involved this time round. "When things go right for him, he's very good," Weld said. "The visor helped him concentrate. He comes off a strong pace and he battles so the Triumph might just be the making of him."
The other novice hurdle, the Deloitte, produced a 50-1 shock as Benefficient profited from a fine ride from the front by Bryan Cooper, gaining first run on Sous Les Cieux and holding on by just over a length. Cash And Go and Captain Conan both dropped right out, but the runner-up settled much better under a patient ride this time and could well reverse the form at the Festival. Either way, the celebrations in the winner's enclosure – his owner appeared to have brought over most of his clientele from an Irish bar in New York – will ensure that Benefficient has many friends at Cheltenham. "From the day we got him we thought he was a very good horse," said his trainer, Tony Martin. "And he's proved it today."
Whatever Quel Esprit might achieve, the next crop of novices are shaping up very convincingly. Martin had saddled Bog Warrior to another easy win at Naas the previous day, and Last Instalment continued to look a class act in the Moriarty Novices' Chase, though Philip Fenton, his trainer, warned he might not go to the Festival unless he gets soft ground.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Enery (4.10 Wolverhampton)
Discarded by Godolphin after looking one of their lesser juveniles last year, but feasibly treated if improving as expected for this longer distance.
Next best: Hambleton (2.40 Wolverhampton)
Showed a bit more on return from a break last time and can confirm that he is back on a competitive mark.
One to watch: De Boitron (Ferdy Murphy) has been out of form but a strong finish for third at Musselburgh on Saturday suggests he could again get involved in the Grand Annual at Cheltenham next month.
Where the money's going: Long Run is 2-1 from 9-4 with the sponsors to retain the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup next month.