Five-star performance: outsider Bacardys leads home Mullins one-two
Give Michael van Gerwen three darts at a bullseye and you can be guaranteed he will hit it. Give Willie Mullins six darts at a Grade 1 and he will be likely to hit the target too. And while some may have thought a feat similar to that of Michael Dickinson in the 1983 Gold Cup was on the cards, the champion trainer had to be content with saddling Bacardys and Bunk Off Early to finish first and second.
A fine feat it was, though, as he landed this contest for the fifth year in a row, but with the winner going off at 12-1 the race did not add clarity to the Cheltenham Festival markets.
Mullins nominated the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle as the most likely target for the winner, but how impressed bookmakers were can kindly be labelled as varied. Bacardys' price ranges from 7-1 to 12-1 for both the Albert Bartlett and Neptune.
Bacardys is doubtless an improving type and had Patrick Mullins back in the saddle here for the first time since finishing third on him in the Champion Bumper at Punchestown last year.
His jumping was much improved, even if he tended to leap a tad to his left, and he was in top gear coming to the last, staying on strongly to overhaul his stablemate close home to win by three-quarters of a length.
"It's great to get a Grade 1 with him. I would say they went a fair gallop because Patrick came from nearly last and the plan was to be handy," said the trainer.
"He's improving all the time and we really needed to run him in this to gain more experience. He had a bit of a hold-up after Christmas and I was a little surprised that he stayed on as well as he did – he obviously doesn't need a lot of training.
"His jumping was great and to be able to step up in class like that was a very good performance. The race will bring him on and I'd imagine we'll be looking more at the Albert Bartlett than Neptune."
Mullins was equally pleased with the performance of Bunk Off Early, saying: "He'll improve hugely for jumping at that speed; we think he's more likely to come back two miles rather than step up in trip."
It wasn't all good news for the Mullins camp in the race. Ruby Walsh's choice Saturnas was backed down to 5-4 favourite but was under the cosh before two out and finished a tailed-off last. Walsh reported he had made a noise, although he was found to be post-race normal on veterinary examination.