Fever too hot for Clonmel rivals
All roads lead to Kempton on Boxing Day for Champagne Fever after the flying grey made an impressive return to action in the Clonmel Oil Chase.
The Champion Bumper and Supreme Novices' Hurdle hero was only narrowly denied a Cheltenham Festival hat-trick in last season's Arkle Trophy and was an 8-11 favourite for his comeback run in a fascinating renewal of this Grade Two event.
Paul Townend, standing in for the sidelined Ruby Walsh, appeared keen to get a lead aboard the Willie Mullins-trained odds-on shot, but Champagne Fever was eager to get on with his job and was in front passing the stands with a circuit to go.
Some exuberant leaps heading down the back straight kept the pressure on his rivals and when nearest pursuer Realt Mor made a mess of the second fence from the finish, the race was as good as over.
Champagne Fever galloped on towards the final fence and another accurate leap sealed his six-length victory over Alderwood.
The seven-year-old is a best priced 8-1 with Paddy Power and sponsors William Hill for the King George VI Chase at Kempton and that could be his next port of call.
Mullins said: "I was delighted with what he did considering how he pulled in the first half of the race. I didn't think he could pull like that and still beat a field of horses rated 150-plus.
"Last week I wasn't coming here, but in his final bit of work he sparked and we decided we'd run him. He's improved over the last 10 days.
"We're looking at the John Durkan (Memorial Chase at Punchestown). However, I think Boston Bob is going to go there, and maybe he (Champagne Fever) is just better being a little fresher.
"Maybe no run between now and then (Kempton) might be better for him - just keep him good and strong and well."
The champion trainer hopes Champagne Fever can develop into a realistic contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup back at Prestbury Park in March.
"We're looking at the long-distance races. He has to improve, but the ultimate aim would be the Gold Cup," he said.
"He has to prove he's a Gold Cup horse. He hasn't done that yet."
The disappointment of the feature event was Sizing Europe, with Henry de Bromhead's popular veteran coming home sixth of seven runners.
De Bromhead said: "It was disappointing and my immediate reaction is (to blame the) ground."
Champagne Fever completed a double for the Mullins team, with Killultagh Vic getting the day off to a flyer in the opening INH Stallion Owners EBF Maiden Hurdle.
Sixth and fifth respectively in the Cheltenham and Punchestown champion bumpers, the 1-4 favourite made short work of his rivals on his hurdling bow, making most of the running and coming home four and a half lengths clear of Virtuoso Rouge.
"We thought there'd be a lot more pace. We didn't envisage having to make the running, but he jumped well when he got to the front," said Mullins.
"He had point-to-point experience up his sleeve and he galloped on up the hill.
"Looking at what he did today, he should stay further than two and a half miles."