Willie Mullins extended his fine record in the Lough Construction Ltd. Irish EBF Mares Novice Hurdle at Down Royal as Sancta Simona ran out a workmanlike winner.
The champion trainer saddled three successive winners of the Grade Three prize between 2014 and 2016 and although his winning run ended last season, he looked to have every chance of adding to his tally on Friday, with even-money favourite Sancta Simona joined by stablemate Dont Hesitate.
Ruby Walsh sent the latter straight to the lead and she was still in contention rounding the home turn.
However, Sancta Simona was travelling powerfully in behind under Barry Geraghty and swept clear on the run to the final flight.
Holding Pattern went in pursuit and briefly threatened to make a real race of it, but Sancta Simona found enough for pressure to prevail by a length and a quarter.
Mullins said: “She was still green, hopefully she will improve. We will just try and keep her to the mares’ programme.
“She’s a fine, big mare and I like her. She’s a mare that we have always had time for. Hopefully she will keep improving.
“She was very keen and was doing a lot of racing all the time and never got a chance to settle. I think once she gets a faster pace she might be better and will maybe jump better as well.”
Asked about the Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, Mullins added: “She will still have to improve. She’s well up to the standard of any good novice mares that we have had at this time of the season, so I’m very happy with her progress now.”
Noel Meade’s First Approach (9-10 favourite) was an impressive winner of the opening Eventsec Maiden Hurdle, comfortably accounting for market rival Diamond Turf by 13 lengths under Sean Flanagan.
Meade said: “His jumping was electric and I’d say when he ends up jumping fences that will be his real mark.
“He was quite impressive at the end, so I’m thrilled.”
Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown House Stud gained some compensation for the defeat of Samcro earlier in the card as another Cheltenham Festival hero Delta Work (4-9 favourite) made a successful debut over fences in the Porter & Co. Beginners Chase.
The Pertemps Final victor was untidy at the final fence, but came home well to beat Niven by three-quarters of a length.
Elliott said: “I thought he threw it away at the last, he jumped well other than that. We got away with it so we are happy.
“He battled well, he’s a tough horse and a good horse. We can build on that and see where we go.”
Arthur Moore and Paul Townend combined to land the Allianz Handicap Hurdle with 9-2 chance Brosna George, while 7lb claimer Conor Orr steered Francis Casey’s Eight Till Late (8-1) to a clear-cut win in the Toals Bookmakers Handicap Chase.
The Sky Sports Racing Launching In 2019 Flat Race brought the afternoon to a close and victory went to the Ted Walsh-trained Batcio (9-2), ridden by Aubrey McMahon.