Five years have now passed since the days when the Celtic tiger roared home an Irish one-two in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, courtesy of War Of Attrition and Hedgehunter. Since then the challenge from across the water has yielded only disappointment but this term, the champion Long Run apart, the home defence looks shaky. And yesterday at Punchestown the upwardly mobile six-year-old Rubi Light, trained by Co Meath-based Robbie Hennessy, at least drew off a gauntlet, even if it is yet to be thrown down.
Rubi Light had confirmed his exciting potential by rounding off his first campaign over fences with a fine third place in the Ryanair Chase in March. When he resumed at Gowran Park in October, he had the two-mile champion Sizing Europe, no less, trailing in his wake when he crashed out at the last. Yesterday, though, his jumping for Andrew Lynch was immaculate as he notched his first Grade One success in the John Durkan Memorial Chase.
After keeping company with Cooldine until halfway in the two-and-a-half-miler, Lynch pressed on and, in testing underfoot conditions that suited his mount, soon had his rivals – albeit a selection of exposed types – under pressure. Though understandably tiring in the closing stages, he stayed on stoutly to repel Joncol by five lengths.
Sadly, the contest claimed the life of the dual Grade One winner Kempes, fatally injured in a fall five out and his stablemate Golden Silver's Hilly Way Chase hat-trick win at Cork a few minutes earlier will have been only cold comfort to the Willie Mullins team.
Rubi Light's next assignment is likely to be a step up to three miles in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown at the end of the month. "He was a sick horse after Gowran," said Hennessy, "and though he's been working brilliantly in the last couple of weeks he'll definitely be better for this run.
"The next day will be something to look forward to. It would be great to think we might have a Gold Cup horse, and the Lexus should tell us whether we have one." At this stage bookmakers think not; Rubi Light is as short as 10-1 for the Ryanair Chase but can be backed at 25-1 for the Gold Cup.
One who is going to miss the post-Christmas racing is Robert Thornton, who faces a spell on the sidelines after breaking his upper right arm at Hereford yesterday in a fall from Western Whisky, his only ride of the day.
Early yesterday morning at Sha Tin, on the last major payday of the international Flat season, last month's Melbourne Cup winner Dunaden – trained by Mikel Delzangles in France, ridden by Australian Craig Williams and owned by Qatari prince Sheikh Fahad al-Thani – added the Hong Kong Vase to his globetrotting haul.
Williams had missed the Melbourne Cup through suspension and was skulking in the dark of a movie theatre when his country's most famous contest was run. Yesterday he was back in the spotlight, though, with a perfectly judged three-quarters of a length victory from the local veteran Thumbs Up. "He produced so much when I asked him to lift," said Williams of the five-year-old. "The hairs were standing on the back of my neck some way before the line."
Two of Britain's raiders at the meeting went gallantly close. Ed Dunlop's Red Cadeaux, beaten a whisker by Dunedin at Flemington, came home strongly to share third with another French raider, Silver Pond, in the Vase and Roger Charlton's Cityscape, compromised by a wide draw, failed by just a neck to catch Able One for the near £1m first prize in the Mile.
Chris McGrath's Nap Cotton Mill (3.30 Fakenham)
His small, well-connected yard has a collection of Flat recruits and this stoutly bred one was impressive in winning on his hurdling debut.
Next Best Amuse Me (1.30 Fakenham)
Up 5lb after bouncing back to form at Leicester last month, but may still have something in hand.
One to Watch A bad error three out knocked Salut Flo (David Pipe) out of contention in Saturday's big handicap chase at Cheltenham, but he surely has the talent to land a similar contest.
Where the money's going Grandouet has jumped to second favourite – generally 6-1 – for the Champion Hurdle with his clear-cut victory at Cheltenham on Saturday.