Galopin Des Champs came through his pre-Christmas assignment in the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown with flying colours.
Last seen winning at Fairyhouse in April having fallen at the final fence at the Cheltenham Festival with the Turners Novices’ Chase at his mercy, his reappearance had been eagerly anticipated.
Willie Mullins breathed a huge sigh of relief when the meeting was rescheduled after originally being lost to the weather, and in truth, there was very little alarm for the 2-9 market leader once the race had started.
The Gold Cup favourite was settled in mid-division by Paul Townend as Lifetime Ambition led the field along, before he breezed to the head of affairs over two furlongs out.
Without being asked a serious question the six-year-old careered away to win by 13 lengths from Fakir D’oudairies, who is himself a Grade One winner.
Sky Bet cut the winner to 7-4 from 5-2 for the Gold Cup, with the winning trainer admitting he was delighted to bag another John Durkan, 21 years after his first winner of the race.
“Florida Pearl was our first (John Durkan winner) back in 2001, I was delighted to win it that day and thought I’d never win another. It just shows the quality of horse we’ve been lucky enough to get,” he said.
“We thought Lifetime Ambition would make the running and Paul said he’d sit in behind. I was really happy when they went by the winning post to see a loop in Paul’s reins, that’s a big improvement for him.
“Then when Paul wanted to put in a few quick ones in front of the fences he did that and then when Paul really wanted him he was able to, he was so slick over the third last. I just think he’s grown up so much.
“To beat a proven two-and-a-half-mile Grade One-winner in Fakir D’oudairies like that is a big result.
“He’d probably win a two-mile chase, whether he’d win a Grade One I don’t know but where going out to the Gold Cup trip which is why I was delighted in the way he settled today.
“He did everything right so I was just hoping nothing stupid happened. It went very well.”
Winning jockey Paul Townend added: “He’s so slick over his fences, he’s learning and going up.
“At the start of last year he was rushing and letting fly at his fences, but he did everything professional today.
“On the first circuit there was a loop in the rein and he was doing everything right and it’s brilliant to see him being so professional now.
“I wanted a lead today if I could and then I just wanted to keep it simple on him. He gives you some feel and it’s brilliant they got the meeting on.”
Appreciate It 4/1 for Arkle after chasing debut victory
In the following race, Appreciate It made a winning debut over fences for Willie Mullins and Paul Townend at Punchestown.
A problem last season meant he was only seen once, in the Champion Hurdle when he finished seventh behind Honeysuckle.
Sent chasing late in life as he will turn nine in a few weeks, he nevertheless still possesses a huge engine – he briefly looked like having a fight on his hands as Top Bandit joined him early in the straight, but when asked to stretch Appreciate It, the 1-5 favourite, pulled seven lengths clear.
Sky Bet cut the winner to 4-1 for the Arkle in March and go 8-1 for the Turners Novices’ Chase.
Mullins said: “He went out and did his own work in front. He was very idle in front and Jack Kennedy kept him honest over the last couple.
“I couldn’t ask for any better. It was only two miles and we’ll see how he comes out of it. We’ll see if there is something between now and the Dublin Racing Festival.
“He’s an Arkle type and we have others to come out over the next few days. I don’t know if they are as good as him, but we’ll give them the opportunity.”