Sizing John finally landed a Grade 1 victory in Irish racing’s most prolific top-flight programme at Leopardstown on Sunday. However, his victory ultimately left many pondering on a performer not at the meeting but instead tucked up at home.
Those hard-eyed form experts steadfastly refusing to get caught up in the excitement surrounding Douvan look like they have to think again since routinely beating up Sizing John now looks a very different proposition compared to what it used to be.
On seven occasions, over both fences and hurdles, Sizing John has finished placed behind Willie Mullins’s superstar. But freed from the thankless task of chasing Douvan over two miles, Sizing John stepped into the limelight himself with a narrow but ultimately decisive victory in the €150,000 Stan James Irish Gold Cup on Sunday.
It was his first attempt at three miles and the 100-30 shot made light of the testing conditions to beat the Gordon Elliott-trained pair Empire Of Dirt and Don Poli.
Some bookmakers make Sizing John a 10-1 shot to step up again in next month's Cheltenham Gold Cup, although his trainer Jessica Harrington – who took the horse over from Henry de Bromhead last summer – didn't rule out an alternative option in the Ryanair Chase.
Either way he won't have to clash again with the most exciting steeplechaser in training whose position as next month's festival "banker" in the Queen Mother Champion Chase will have been only cemented by Sunday's big race.
Remarkable comeback Sizing John's victory completed a remarkable comeback from injury by jockey Robbie Power who ruptured a disc in his back just over a fortnight previously but was cleared for a comeback earlier this week.
"The original prognosis was I'd be out for four to six weeks but I got passed on Monday and I think I owe Mr [Jabir] Nagaria in the Beacon Hospital a bottle of wine," joked the rider who had earlier finished runner-up on Our Duke in the Flogas Novice Chase behind Disko.
Power is adamant that stamina is Sizing John’s forte. “They didn’t go much of a pace and I would have been happier if they’d gone quicker. He has been chasing Douvan and lying up with him so he was very quick at his fences. But today isn’t the day for a decision on the Gold Cup,” he said.
Gordon Elliott reported "no excuses" for his pair and indicated Don Poli will take in both the Gold Cup and the Grand National.
Empire Of Dirt raced similarly smoothly to the winner throughout the race and was closing on Sizing John at the line.
"The way he travelled, he could be a horse for the Ryanair," said the season's leading trainer who earlier on the card outpointed his great rival, Willie Mullins, in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle when Mega Fortune was too good for the favourite Bapaume.
Mega Fortune was winner number 50 of the season for former champion jockey Davy Russell, but it was a landmark day for Disko's rider Sean Flanagan who landed the first Grade 1 of his career on Disko.
“I’d set myself a goal to win a Grade 1 and I’m delighted; it took me a while,” Flanagan said. Disko was cut to a general 8-1 shot for Cheltenham’s JLT.
With half a dozen runners, Mullins duly landed the Deloitte Novice Hurdle for a fifth year in a row, but it was the 12-1 outsider Bacardys who beat his stable companion Bunk Off Early while the 5-4 favourite Saturnas tailed off.
Ruby Walsh reported Saturnas "made a noise in running" although the horse was "post-race normal" in a veterinary examination.
Patrick Mullins came in for the Bacardys ride and the champion amateur completed a Grade 1 set when breaking his top-flight duck over hurdles to go with multiple victories in bumpers and a chasing success on Douvan at Christmas 2015.
Bacardys was cut to 7-1 for both the Neptune and the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham, but overall it was a mixed day for the Mullins team.
Bellshill was well beaten behind Disko before falling at the last and the favourite Voix Des Tiep came up half a length short of the Harrington-trained Someday in the bumper. The winner jinked dramatically right in the closing stages, colliding with Voix Des Tiep, but the placings were left alone in a steward’s inquiry.
Bookmaker reaction overall was to ease Mullins to 8-15 for the leading trainer award at Cheltenham.