Cilaos Emery landed very short odds for a stylish Grade Three win at Gowran – putting himself on course for a possible shot at next month’s Champion Hurdle.
Willie Mullins’ lightly-raced eight-year-old was running over the smaller obstacles for the first time since December 2017 – but he was sent off the 1-4 favourite in the Red Mills Trial Hurdle.
He justified those odds emphatically, dismissing last year’s winner of the race Darasso by nine and a half lengths under Paul Townend.
Cilaos Emery loomed up on the wide outside of Darasso and the front-running Mengli Khan to take the lead two out – and they then surged clear in the heavy ground.
He was last seen falling at the first fence at Leopardstown two weeks ago, and retains entries in the both the Queen Mother Champion and Ryanair Chases.
But Mullins has had to rule two injured high-profile contenders out of the Champion Hurdle reckoning of late – and Cilaos Emery, who will need to be supplemented, could fill that vacancy.
“The first half of (owner) Luke’s (McMahon) plan has gone to plan anyway,” said Mullins.
“I thought he was very impressive, especially after his mistake at the third last. What he did in between the third last and the last was what impressed me.
“It’s very hard for any horse to be impressive, visually, on that ground and in that weather.
“I’d imagine that might mean he goes to the Champion Hurdle now.
“It was debated what chance would he have in the Champion Chase and what chance might he have in the Champion Hurdle.
“It was decided then that we’d run today, see what happens and that would make up our mind.
“We keep coming back to saying that he has as much of a chance in the Champion Hurdle as he has in the Champion Chase. That’s the reasoning behind where we are going.”
Chris’s Dream defied deteriorating conditions to grind out an all-the-way win in the Grade Two Red Mills Chase.
Henry de Bromhead’s Cheltenham Gold Cup entry was dropping back to two and a half miles, following his impressive success over three in Navan’s Troytown Handicap Chase in November.
Rachael Blackmore unsurprisingly set out to make the most of the eight-year-old’s assured stamina at this trip – and Chris’s Dream responded with a fluent round of jumping, despite going slightly right at several fences.
He was in front from the outset, posted out wide on the first circuit. Then in worsening visibility, he appeared to have settled matters at the second last before having to dig deep to hold off runner-up Shattered Love and win by two and a quarter lengths at 3-1.
Mullins’ even-money favourite Real Steel ran no race and was already tailed off in the back straight.
De Bromhead stopped short of committing his winner just yet to a definite Cheltenham target next month.
“He’s in the Ryanair and he’s in the Gold Cup, so we’ll see,” said the County Waterford trainer.
“We’ll see how he is – he doesn’t take too many runs, so we felt we had to come here, and it’s great to win this.
“We’ll enjoy today, and then see what we want to do.”
De Bromhead is not concerned about the possibility of drier ground at the Festival, however.
“He won the Ten Up on goodish ground last year, so I don’t think that ground is a necessity,” he added.
“I still don’t know why his form tails off a bit – I think there are only three or four runs in him.
“He seemed to jump a little bit right and go right – I’m not sure about that. But it’s great he won, and Rachael was brilliant on him.
“After a couple or three runs, he seems to lose his form, so that’s why we purposely put him away for now.
“At the back end of each season he can be a bit disappointing – but when he’s on song, he really does battle.”
Blackmore and De Bromhead completed a quick double when their 5-2 shot Spyglass Hill won the following Download The BoyleSports App Beginners Chase by six lengths, after Mullins’ favourite Voix Des Tiep had come to a standstill with a bad mistake when still upsides at the third last.
There was also a double to bookend the card for Gordon Elliott – with Saint D’Oroux in the opening Sea Moon & Shantou At Burgage Stud Maiden Hurdle and then Queens Brook in the Ronan Lawlor Memorial Irish EBF Mares (Pro/Am) Flat Race.
Both may have spring Festival dates.
After Saint D’Oroux had broken his duck at the fifth attempt, by a commanding 24 lengths as the evens favourite under Davy Russell, the winning trainer pointed the way to the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham.
“He’s getting stronger the whole time and he didn’t mind that ground,” said Elliott.
“He’ll probably go for the ‘Fred Winter’ now, all being well.”
Queens Brook will not be heading to Cheltenham after her 21-length win as 11-10 favourite in the last under Jamie Codd – but Aintree, Fairyhouse and Punchestown could be on her agenda.