Joseph O’Brien ended 2018 on a high after saddling a double at Punchestown.
The Piltown handler got the final Irish fixture of the year off to the best possible start as Shady Operator came out on top in a thrilling climax to the opening Tote Supporting Irish Racing Beginners Chase.
Having finished third on his chasing debut at Navan, the JP McManus-owned five-year-old was the 7-4 favourite under Mark Walsh, but was being ridden in behind the Willie Mullins-trained pair of C’Est Jersey and Ballyward before the home turn.
However, Shady Operator stuck to his guns in the straight and got the better of a pulsating duel with Ballyward by a short head. C’Est Jersey was third after stumbling on the run-in.
O’Brien said: “He did well to win because he missed the last three fences and he had a bit of traffic as well.
“Mark was very happy with him and he jumped very well on the whole. It was his first time going the trip (three miles and a furlong) and I’d say he stays every yard of it.
“I’d say he’ll step into a graded novice now, probably around that trip again.
“They are two decent horses that were second and third and he wasn’t a bad horse over hurdles.”
O’Brien, Walsh and McManus were on the mark again with Gardens of Babylon, who made a winning start to his jumping career in the Small Stakes Big Wins With Tote 3-Y-O Maiden Hurdle.
The 7-1 shot had run well in two maidens on the Flat for Aidan O’Brien and knuckled down well to beat Surin on his hurdling bow by half length.
“He did well to win because it was only his third run ever and I thought he’d probably come on a bit from it,” said O’Brien.
“It was nice to see him go and do that. He jumped well. They went slow and got racing in front of him but he went and got them in fairness to him.
“There is a winners race in Fairyhouse and you also have the graded race at Leopardstown. We’ll see.
“He had a few problems I think, but he has ability.”
Barna Venture (7-2 co-favourite) landed the Join Us In The New Year On thetote.com Handicap Chase for trainer-jockey Denis Hogan, before Blast Of Koeman (13-2) struck gold in the Happy New Year From thetote.com Handicap Hurdle for Robert Tyner and Phillip Enright.
Shane Crawley’s Breesy Mountain was a surprise 25-1 winner of the Adare Manor Opportunity Handicap Hurdle under Danny Hand and the concluding mares’ bumper went to Tens Or Better (100-300), trained by Pat Fahy and ridden by Richard Harding.