If much of a packed weekend programme left the Cheltenham Gold Cup picture in a state of flux it ended with Fastorslow stamping his Blue Riband credentials in style in Sunday’s John Durkan Chase at Punchestown.
The Martin Brassil-trained star proved his 20-1 Punchestown Gold Cup defeat of Galopin Des Champs and Bravemansgame last Spring to be no fluke in a Grade One contest that had been widely expected to be dominated by Willie Mullins.
Galopin Des Champs led Mullins’s quintet into the six-runner highlight but the reigning Gold Cup champion never looked likely to repeat his 2022 Durkan victory and eventually had to settle for third.
Instead, it was his stable companion Appreciate It who proved the biggest obstacle to Fastorslow.
Dominating from the front, Appreciate It proved ultra-resolute and looked a likely winner on the run to the last. However, despite the Mullins “wall” around him, jockey JJ Slevin galvanised Fastorslow on the run-in and the 9-1 winner powered up the rail to win by half a length at the line.
Immediate bookmaker reaction was to cut Fastorslow to as low as 5-1 for Gold Cup glory in March although there was consensus among layers too in keeping Galopin Des Champs at the top of the betting, albeit stretched out to 3-1.
It added to a confused Gold Cup picture on the back of the previous day’s cross-channel action where Bravemansgame failed to cope with Royale Pagaille in Haydock’s Betfair Chase.
That at least was an honourable effort compared to Shishkin’s antics at Ascot where Nicky Henderson’s enigmatic star point-blank refused to race. Henderson could now be forced into getting a warm-up into Shikshkin for Kempton’s King George at Newcastle next weekend.
The fluidity of the situation in the staying chase division was further underlined on Sunday when Gordon Elliott didn’t rule out sending his own big hope, Gerri Colombe, to Kempton for that King George on St Stephen’s Day.
“But I could change my mind 10 times before then!” joked Elliott.
A definitive weekend outcome though is that Fastorslow’s status as a prime Gold Cup contender is inarguable.
Fears about the Durkan’s 2½ miles being an insufficient stamina test were proved wildly off the mark and Brassil, who famously landed the 2006 Grand National with Numbersixvalverde, has a real shot at landing steeplechasing’s other major prize.
“We would have been delighted if he was in the first three. It was a tactical, steadily run race and he never gave him too much to do and it worked out well.
“He went the shortest way round and jumped really well. He was nearly travelling too well for the first mile of the race, he was in his hands a bit. He’s just a very good horse and there is a lot to look forward to with him.
“He needed to back up that Punchestown run [in April]. People might have thought we were mad taking on very good horses in the spring and he’s done the same today,” Brassil said.
Slevin, who lost his whip on the run-in added: “They didn’t go that quick, so it turned into a bit of a dash. My lad was keen early, but he soon chilled after that. He is just a very, very good horse.”
Patrick Mullins was left to rue Appreciate It’s habit of jumping left although his father’s disappointment with Galopin Des Champs’ performance afterwards was obvious.
“He didn’t seem to jump early on, and he ran like he was early on. He didn’t jump the first two and the writing was on the wall from there,” said Mullins snr.
As for immediate plans with Galopin Des Champs, the champion trainer said he would see how the horse is in the coming days although he didn’t rule out a repeat of last year’s programme and waiting for the Dublin Racing Festival.
Galopin Des Champs failed to justify a 1-2 starting price but on a rare Grade One programme without a single Mullins winner, perhaps the writing was really on the wall when Tullyhill got turned over in an earlier maiden hurdle at eye-watering odds of 1-8.
To rub salt into the result, the winner, Shannon Royale, was produced by Mullins’s great rival, Gordon Elliott.
Punchestown’s new two-day “Winter Festival” attracted an official attendance of 9,721 through the gates. A total of 5,445 people attended on Sunday with 4,276 there for Saturday’s Morgiana Hurdle programme.
Punchestown’s action was the latest in a series of ‘Festival’ weekends as part of a rejigged pre-Christmas programme set out by Horse Racing Ireland. More than 8,500 people were reported to have attended last week’s Navan dates and next weekend’s Winter Festival takes place at Fairyhouse.