Willie Mullins saddled five of the six runners in Sunday's John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase, a Grade 1 he'd won every year since 2018. In the event, however, it was the Martin Brassil-trained Fastorslow (c173+ from c170) who came out on top, again lowering the colours of 2022 winner and Gold Cup hero Galopin des Champs (c179 from c180), the latter looking rusty and clearly below par in a race which developed into a test of speed.
Fastorslow has come a long way since being sent off the 66/1 outsider of six in last year's renewal and underlined his Grade 1 credentials with a winning return from seven months off, in the process claiming a second successive verdict over Galopin des Champs. Admittedly, the latter clearly wasn't at his best and the proximity of others limits the view that can be taken of the bare form, but Fastorslow is clearly an emerging force who seems set to be a leading player in whichever race he turns up in this season.
Appreciate It (c161 from c155) had the run of things on his return from seven months off and is likely to prove flattered in splitting the Punchestown Gold Cup first two, though he looked much more straightforward under his first front-running ride in a while, sticking to his task well to be beaten just half a length. Prominent tactics look the way to go with him from now on.
As for Galopin des Champs, it's possible that longer trips suit him ideally nowadays (again lacked the zip which characterised his novice campaign) and that he'll be a good deal sharper for this run (particularly in the jumping department), but he's clearly lost some of the aura built up when effectively unbeaten on his first seven starts in this sphere.
Mullins enjoyed better luck in the other Grade 1 run at Punchestown over the weekend as State Man (remains on h167) justified very short odds with the minimum of fuss in winning Saturday's Morgiana Hurdle for the second year in a row, leading on the bridle before the straight and just needing to be shaken up from there to land the spoils by five lengths.
State Man will face competition from stablemate in Impaire Et Passe – set to return in next weekend's Hatton's Grace – for the status as the leading Irish-trained two-mile hurdler this season, but he is sure to add to his haul of Grade 1 prizes before the end of the campaign, looking every bit as good as ever here in gaining his sixth top-level success.
The Grade 2 Florida Pearl Novice Chase earlier on the card brought together a stronger field than most British Grade 1 novices will attract this side of the Cheltenham Festival, though it didn't prove quite so informative a race as it might have, with the favourite, Affordale Fury, going as if amiss and Flooring Porter turning in one of his most wayward displays.
That left Favori de Champdou (c152p from c142p) to get off the mark over fences at the second attempt having chased home Affordale Fury when the pair were making their respective debuts at Galway last month. This time he was well on top at the finish having asserted on the approach to the last, drawing right away from there to land the spoils by 14 lengths.
Favori de Champdou jumped soundly throughout and is clearly a very smart prospect. Stamina looks to be his strong suit and this level of form would have been good enough to win a few recent editions of the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham – he now heads the ante-post betting for that race at a general 12/1.
Gordon Elliott also struck in Sunday's Craddockstown Novice Chase at Punchestown, albeit that was by no means a strong Grade 2 by Irish standards and Imagine (remains on c143p), sent off the 100/30-on favourite, was unimpressive in landing the odds after things had developed into something of a dash up the straight.
He jumped only adequately and made surprisingly hard work of seeing off the two placed horses, looking all out to hold on by half a length from the rallying Lucid Dreams (c141 from c139), who had been beaten in two previous starts in Grade 3 company this autumn.
That limits the view that can be taken of the form, though it's possible that the small-field nature of this race didn't play to the strengths of Imagine and he's worth another chance to confirm the promise of his smooth debut victory over fences at Fairyhouse.
Away from the graded action at Punchestown, Mullins unleashed an exciting prospect on Saturday's card as Gaelic Warrior (c154p) made a hugely impressive debut over fences, a bit low at a couple but quickly drawing clear when allowed to stride on in the middle part of the race.
He was approximately 30 lengths clear of his closest pursuer at the third last and ultimately won by half that margin having been heavily eased late on, leaving a couple who'd already shown useful form in this sphere trailing in his wake.
It was a tour de force from Gaelic Warrior and the best performance from a chasing debutant we've seen so far this season. In fact, with a Timeform master rating of 154p, Gaelic Warrior is behind only Letsbeclearaboutit (c156p) – who achieved his figure when following up his debut win in a Grade 3 at Cork – among the best in the division.
Successful on four of his five starts over hurdles last season – including at Grade 1 level at the Punchestown Festival in April – Gaelic Warrior holds top-level entries at a variety of trips over Christmas and he's sure to take some stopping back up in grade, with a return to two miles unlikely to inconvenience him judged on the manner of this victory.
Klassical Dream (c147P) and Mister Policeman (c140P) are others from the Mullins yard who have recently made a winning start over fences. One of the very best staying hurdlers around having won the last three runnings of the corresponding race at the Punchestown Festival, Klassical Dream is a relative latecomer to chasing rising 10, but he could hardly have made a better impression after six months off when scoring at Thurles on Thursday, producing a flawless round of jumping.
Admittedly, it probably wasn't the strongest contest of its type, but Klassical Dream typically impressed with how he went through the race, travelling powerfully at the head of affairs and in some control from some way out as he eased to a nine-and-a-half-length success.
Faugheen and Sharjah (c152p) – two from two over fences so far this season – are others from Closutton who have taken well to chasing late in life and Klassical Dream will be well worth his place in something better next time with significant improvement on the cards.
Meanwhile, the beginners chase won by Mister Policeman at Fairyhouse on Friday was an unsatisfactory contest, essentially a test of speed from the home turn having not been run at an end-to-end gallop.
A smart hurdler last season when winning a minor event at Cork on his debut for Willie Mullins, Mister Policeman was expected to confirm himself a top-class prospect on this chasing debut, but it ended up being far from plain sailing as he was given a fright by his connections' second string after eight months off, only getting on top close home to beat Feu du Bresil (c139p) by three quarters of a length.
It certainly wasn't as straightforward as one might have expected given his prohibitive odds, though the way things developed probably worked against Mister Policeman and it will be no surprise if he leaves this form well behind on his way to bigger and better things.
The feature race on British soil was Saturday's Betfair Chase in which Haydock specialist Royale Pagaille (c165 from c158) finally made the breakthrough at Grade 1 level at the chief expense of Bravemansgame (c172 from c173), who'd finished well ahead of him when they'd met in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Royale Pagaille wound things up gradually having edged ahead early in the straight and he drew right away on the run-in as his main rival cracked, ultimately winning by six and a half lengths. Whilst clearly a top-class chaser on his day, Royale Pagaille will likely find life tougher in more competitive Grade 1 events compared to this one which rather fell apart, with last year's winner Protektorat (c165 from c168) the main disappointment.
Bravemansgame jumped best as he alternated the lead with Protektorat before being tackled by Royale Pagaille in the back straight, not seeing things out fully having been held together for as long as possible on the winner's shoulder until between the last two. This was his second short-priced defeat in as many starts this season, though his trainer's King George record is such that a revival in line with tackling that optimum test at Kempton is well within the realms of possibility.
Also at Haydock, Grey Dawning (c143p from c140p) impressed in winning what looked a red-hot graduation chase by nine and a half lengths, beating last season's National Hunt Chase winner/Grand National third Gaillard du Mesnil (c156 from c158) and the mare Apple Away (c121p), a Grade 1-winning novice hurdler at Aintree.
Grey Dawning jumped boldly on the whole, leaping to the front at the eighth and making the rest, with an injection of pace in the straight leaving the other pair standing.
A Grade 2 winner as a novice hurdler last season, Grey Dawning remains essentially untested in top company (fell in the race won by Apple Away at Aintree) and a step up in grade is sure to be on the cards after this performance, fully confirming the promise of his chasing debut at Exeter a couple of weeks earlier.
Behind Stay Away Fay (143p) and The Changing Man (141p) on that occasion, Grey Dawning is absolutely no forlorn hope to reverse form with that pair should they reoppose in something like the Kauto Star at Kempton on Boxing Day, promising to be one of the premier British-trained novice chasers this season.
Haydock's loss was supposed to be Ascot's gain on Saturday as Shishkin (c176§ from c176) lined up in the Grade 2 1965 Chase in preference to the Betfair Chase. However, he disgraced himself in refusing to race, which left the race at the mercy of Pic d'Orhy (remains on c163), though he made harder work of it than a 16-length defeat of 40/1-shot Straw Fan Jack (remains on 144) might suggest.
Shishkin, of course, had hammered the winner in their Ascot Chase clash last season, but the fact he planted himself at the start perhaps wasn't entirely surprising in hindsight, that he was tried in headgear despite a win at Aintree on his final start last season suggesting connections had some concerns about his attitude. He's still a brilliant chaser on his day but has to be treated with caution for the time being.
Incidentally, with a current master rating of 176, Shishkin is the highest-rated chaser in over 30 years to be given a Timeform squiggle.