Once dismissed by some as unreliable, Don Cossack now appears transformed, and his career-best performance winning Punchestown's John Durkan Chase means he looks set to be entrusted with an especially important Cheltenham task in March.
The Gold Cup is steeplechasing's "blue-riband", but Don Cossack's owner, Michael O'Leary, famously came within an ace of skipping it in 2006 in favour of running War of Attrition in the Ryanair Chase.
History shows that War of Attrition did win the Gold Cup, cementing the Ryanair boss’s racing passion into the bargain. But winning the race he’s sponsored for nine years remains an ambition for O’Leary.
Mossbank’s second in 2008 remains the closest O’Leary has come, but the emphasis in trainer Gordon Elliott’s post-Durkan debrief left little encouragement to those wanting to play up on some 16-1 ante-post Gold Cup quotes for Don Cossack.
“If I have my way, he’ll go straight to Cheltenham – for the Ryanair,” said the Co Meath-based trainer, who later produced another long-term festival prospect, Mala Beach, to win the Beginners Chase.
Mala Beach, Elliott reckons, is a “fair horse” who will be even better on softer. The National Hunt Chase, the so-called four miler, “might be a race for him”.
Don Cossack, though, appears to hold a particular place in Elliott’s affections. After winning three bumpers, the strapping German bred was hailed “an aeroplane” by the trainer.
Still, a novice hurdle campaign proved disappointing, and even winning a Drinmore as a novice chaser couldn’t shake the suspicion that his resolution might not match his altitudinous reputation.
However, a faultless three- out-of-three record this season shows Don Cossack in a new light. After being forced into making most of the running, he did anything but shirk the fight in the closing stages of Punchestown’s prestigious €80,000 Grade 1.
Not close enough
Boston Bob got close enough at the last, but a clumsy jump ruined his chance. Don Cossack ran away from both him and Lord Windermere on the run-in to provoke justifiable Gold Cup quotes.
The ultimate aim looks to be the shorter festival race, one no Irish-trained horse has ever won, and for which Don Cossack is as low as 8-1.
“He’s got plenty stick, but has never been a bad horse, and he’s a dual-Grade 1 winner now,” said Elliott.
“He’s a big horse and now he’s a year older. He fell at Cheltenham last year, ran second at Aintree, and probably had enough by the time he got here. We’ll try and do it a different way this time. He did it the hard way there.”
Lord Windermere, the current Gold Cup title holder, ran a fine seasonal debut, failing by just half a length to overhaul Boston Bob off a less than rigorous pace.
"His jumping was a bit sticky early, but without winning you couldn't be much happier," said rider Davy Russell. "He will come on for that."
Bookmakers left both Lord Windermere and Boston Bob largely unchanged in their Gold Cup betting.
Mala Beach was cut to as low as 12-1 for the RSA after his victory. He was helped by a shocking error early in the race by the favourite, Un Atout, who ultimately struggled home in fifth.
Robbie Power had an easy winner in the opener on Rock the World, but was stood down after Rathlin's fall at the third fence of the Durkan, where Rathlin's stable-companion, Baily Green also exited.
Lord Windermere’s encouraging return apart, Russell enjoyed a fruitful day, with Lite Duties easily defying a penalty in the handicap hurdle and On Impulse running out an impressive winner of the maiden.
Lite Duties is likely to head to Leopardstown. "The slightly better ground helped him there and it might be similar at Leopardstown," said trainer Charles Byrnes. "He's going well, so we'll keep him going."