One thing Kauto Star has not really had to contend with, in any of the last five Gold Cups, is a genuine challenger from Ireland – with the possible exception of Pandorama, who finished so sore at Cheltenham in March that he will not be seen at all this season. Sadly, to judge from what happened here yesterday, things will be little different this time round. True, there were signs that the present crop of novices are working towards a breakthrough, but an emphatic success for Synchronised in the Lexus Chase seemed to give extra edge to the icy gale that came blasting out of the Wicklow hills.
Those who had hoped that Quito De La Roque or Rubi Light might break into the Gold Cup picture will be dismayed to learn that not even Jonjo O'Neill, who stayed at home in the Cotswolds, had given much chance to Synchronised. Winner of the Welsh National last year, he had been scheduled to return to Chepstow the previous day until O'Neill decided that 11st 11lb would be too unfair a burden in so gruelling a race. At the same time, he expected the horse to struggle with conditions much faster than usual for this meeting. Yet there he was, pluckily holding his position as a steady pace finally picked up, and answering Tony McCoy's every call. Turning in, the pair scuttled through a narrow gap on the inside to take command from Rubi Light on the run to the last. Only now reaching top gear, Synchronised surged eight and a half lengths clear on the run-in, and suddenly finds himself as short as 10-1 for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.
In fairness, there is a clear lack of depth behind Long Run and Kauto Star – and this was only an eighth start over fences for a horse now in his prime. With the ground apparently an issue no longer, O'Neill confirmed that Synchronised will be aimed at the Gold Cup, taking in either the Argento Chase at Cheltenham next month or returning here for the Hennessy Gold Cup.
The trainers of both Rubi Light and Quito De La Roque exonerated their charges, proposing softer ground for both, but already it seems necessary to look to the next generation for a Gold Cup horse. And we may well have seen one in the Topaz Fort Leney Novice Chase – or perhaps even two. For while Last Instalment extended his unbeaten record over fences with a decisive six-length defeat of First Lieutenant, the way the runner-up rallied after losing momentum two out suggests that he could yet have a say in the RSA Chase.
Both run in the colours of Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown Stud, whose retained jockey had once again stayed loyal to First Lieutenant – somewhat to the surprise of Philip Fenton, the winning trainer. The beneficiary was Brian O'Connell, who certainly got Last Instalment jumping well under a positive ride. The partnership may yet be renewed at Cheltenham, if Davy Russell perseveres with First Lieutenant – already a Festival winner. Mouse Morris, his trainer, sounded as though he would give him every encouragement. "I'm very pleased with the ground he made at the end," he said. "You won't see him until Cheltenham. And there's a hill there."
The expanding Gigginstown cavalry had earlier produced yet another youngster with a future in Make Your Mark, runaway winner of the maiden hurdle. Already winner of his sole starts in a point-to-point and bumper, he has amazed his trainer. "This fellow doesn't do anything flashy at home," Willie Mullins said. "But every time we've asked him a question, he's answered it."
Mullins endured a lengthy inquisition over the continued absence of Hurricane Fly, who disappeared from today's big hurdle race at the declaration stage. "Paul [Townend] rode him this morning and I just wasn't happy he was straight enough to do himself justice," he explained. Asked whether Hurricane Fly might end up defending the Champion Hurdle first time out, Mullins did not hesitate. "I could, if I had to," he said. "I would like to get a run into him before."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Trop Fort (2.20 Doncaster) Well handicapped on debut form for this stable and, though disappointing since, folded only after an error two out last time. Blinkered today.
Cabbyl Doo (1.35 Kelso) Entitled to need the run last time after six-month absence.
One to watch
Reizovic (John Kiely) disappointed at Leopardstown on Tuesday but promises better another day.
Where the money's going
Sprinter Sacre is 5-2 from 11-4 with William Hill for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham in March.