Sharjah completed a remarkable hat-trick of victories in the Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown, but there will be as much talk about the performances of Saint Roi and Abacadabaras who many expected to boost their Champion Hurdle hopes but who finished well beaten.
The winner, who went off at 11-2 for trainer Willie Mullins, finished clear of Aspire Tower, with 28-1 shot Petit Mouchoir staying on for third ahead of Saint Roi. Abacadabaras finished a tired fifth some 18 lengths further behind.
Ridden cold by Patrick Mullins, Sharjah was dropped out right at the rear as Rachael Blackmore attempted to make all on Aspire Tower. Saint Roi, a Willie Mullins stablemate of the winner, had no excuses on this occasion – but well-positioned by Mark Walsh, his jumping did not stand up to the test in the highest company.
Another Willie Mullins inmate, Saldier – having his first run for more than 400 days – ran well for a long way before dropping away after the last. But Gordon Elliott’s Abacadabras disappointed and never looked like winning at any stage.
Briefly Blackmore and Aspire Tower looked as if they might have slipped the field, but Sharjah (11-2) arrived on the scene still on the bridle before quickening up to win by two lengths.
“He’s like Santa, he rocks up here every year and always seems to deliver,” the winning rider told ITV Racing. “He just seems to come alive. He enjoyed passing horses and he has a great turn of foot.
“He makes it easy and I’d love to have another go at the Champion Hurdle. We were further back than needed to be last time time.”
Sharjah was a clear second to Epatante in last season’s Champion Hurdle and he has been shortened to 8-1 (from 16) with Paddy Power to go one better at the festival in March. Tuesday’s runner-up Aspire Tower was also shortened to 10-1 (from 16) for the Cheltenham Festival highlight, while Saint Roi, who was sent off the 13-8 favourite, was eased in the betting to 10-1 (from as short as 9-2). Epatante is a best-priced 9-4 to regain her crown.
Earlier, Monkfish again outdid his old rival Latest Exhibition in the Neville Hotels Novice Chase at Leopardstown. There was very little between the pair when Monkfish just prevailed in the Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March, and they dominated the finish in this Grade One too.
Paul Nolan’s Latest Exhibition arrived on the back of a slightly disappointing defeat in Grade Two company last time out, having won on his chasing debut, but he did have the benefit of one extra run over fences.
Monkfish took over the running just after halfway for Paul Townend – and just as he had on his chasing bow, jumped with aplomb. However, while at one stage it looked like he may just pull further clear, Bryan Cooper moved Latest Exhibition up alongside him on the run to the second last.
There was nothing between them as they raced at full pelt around the final bend and approached the last fence – and both met it on a decent stride. After the last Monkfish (1-2 favourite) just had a bit more speed, though, and Willie Mullins’ giant pulled three lengths clear as the champion trainer registered yet another notable Christmas success.
The winner was trimmed to 15-8 from 11-4 for the three-mile Grade One at Cheltenham in March.
“It was a very good performance from a horse having his second run over fences, to take on more experienced rivals at a Grade One track. I was very pleased with that,” said Mullins.
“It didn’t seem to be a problem – even when he was meeting one wrong, he shortened himself. He seems to be a natural over fences. There was a lot of pressure on him going to the last, with Latest Exhibition -who has a bit more experience than him. He pulled himself together, fought his way over it, and he just had a little bit in reserve.
“I’d imagine we’ll look at the Flogas Chase. We’ll focus on that first – and if all goes well we can look at Cheltenham after that.”