Form is temporary, class is permanent and Willie Mullins proved misguided rumours of his demise were just that as Invitation Only (4/1 favourite) gave the champion trainer his seventh Thyestes Chase to spearhead a 33/1 Gowran Park treble.
The form of his Closutton string has been called into question after a raft of beaten favourites since the festive period but as the rain finally returned, so did the dominant Mullins that has conquered all before him over the past decade and more.
Victory for the Graham Wylie-owned Invitation Only was also a warning shot from jockey Ruby Walsh that his best days in the saddle aren’t in the rear-view mirror as he gave the eight-year-old a masterful ride to collar Gordon Elliott’s top-weight Alpha Des Obeaux (20/1).
Mullins believes “any Thyestes winner merits an entry in the Gold Cup (25/1) and Aintree Grand National (33/1)” and he expects the son of Flemensfirth to “keep improving as he gets towards Cheltenham”.
Hedgehunter and Djakadam (twice) both finished second in the Gold Cup having landed the Thyestes for Mullins so the pedigree is obvious, while the 62-year-old put his yard’s patchy form down to the unusually dry spell.
“I just thought he might be ahead of the handicapper going out to 3m and so it’s turned out. But I was a bit worried the way a few of ours are running that he might get to the second last and stop,” Mullins said.
“A few of them have been disappointing and all of our first-time-out horses have been needing the run, which in other seasons they haven’t been. Hopefully we’ll get over that, whatever it is. It’s a funny year.
“We haven’t got winter ground yet and we have winter horses and it’s very hard to prepare them the way you normally would. It’s a winter game and we need winter weather.”
While the €100,000 Thyestes was the showpiece event, the crowd thronged the Kilkenny track to see Gold Cup favourite Presenting Percy and they weren’t left disappointed.
Patience is a virtue and Pat Kelly has it in abundance as the Galway trainer bided his time until there was significant ease in the ground before unleashing last year’s RSA winner.
Holding off the Mullins trio of Bapaume (11/2), Killultagh Vic (10/1) and Limini (6/1) in the Grade Two John Mulhern Galmoy Hurdle, Presenting Percy (9/4 favourite) advertised his well-being ahead of a tilt at the blue riband at Cheltenham.
Presenting Percy is fast becoming the people’s horse – he received a round of applause leaving the parade ring akin to a modern-day Danoli – with Kelly the quiet man pulling the strings in the background while owner Philip Reynolds fronts the operation and Davy Russell does the business in the saddle.
“We’ve been very patient. We’ve sat and we’ve sat and we’ve sat. I know people were wondering whether we’d actually retired Percy or what we had done with him and that patience has paid off,” a relieved Reynolds said.
“I’ve been a long, long time in racing with a lot of bad horses so when you get a bit of luck you stick with it.
“I’ve stuck with Pat. Pat has been lucky with me, as has Davy Russell.”
Cut to 3/1 favourite for the Gold Cup, a return to Gowran and a switch to fences for the Red Mills Chase on February 16 is next on the agenda for Presenting Percy before Cheltenham, although he will be given a tentative entry in the Stayers’ Hurdle “to keep all options open”.
Champion jockey Russell would welcome a prep run before the Coltswolds but feels it’s not necessary given the genius of Kelly.
He added: “It’s days like this that we ride for. It takes a horse as special as this lad for the crowd to get behind him. Given the man that trains him, if he didn’t want to run him again before the Gold Cup it wouldn’t bother me. He’s an exceptional man to handle a horse. He’s extraordinary.”
Cilaos Emery (11/8 favourite) opened his account over fences at the first attempt – he will be aimed at the Arkle – to complete a double for Walsh while Blue Sari (15/8) completed the Mullins three-timer when taking the Bumper in stylish fashion under the trainer’s son Patrick.
“It looked a top-notch performance. All his work at home has been very dour but that looked special so I’m looking forward to him for the rest of the season,” Mullins said of Blue Sari, now 10/1 for the Champion Bumper.
Elsewhere, jockey David Mullins has The Big Dog (Evens favourite) earmarked for the Thyestes in the future after Peter Fahey’s exciting six-year-old landed the Connolly’s Red Mills Irish EBF Auction Maiden Hurdle in dominant style for Offaly owners Damien and Colin Kelly.