Energumene set up a mouthwatering clash with Shishkin at Cheltenham next month with a brilliant front-running display in the Patrick Ward & Company Solicitors Irish Arkle Novice Chase at Leopardstown.
The seven-year-old had looked a natural in winning his first two starts over fences – and with trainer Willie Mullins and jockey Paul Townend having already landed the first two Grade Ones of the afternoon, Energumene was the 5-6 favourite to follow suit.
Sent straight to the lead, the Tony Bloom-owned gelding fenced fluently throughout the two-mile-one-furlong contest to keep the pressure on his chasing rivals, with the fall of nearest pursuer Captain Guinness at the second-last leaving the market leader with a clear advantage.
His stable companions Franco De Port and Blackbow attempted to bridge the gap from the home turn, but Energumene was in a class of his own as he passed the post with 10 lengths in hand.
Franco De Port pipped Blackbow to the runner-up spot to make it a Mullins one-two-three.
Energumene(5-6F), racing in the blue and white silk of Brighton owner Tony Bloom, seals victory in the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown with an exuberant display from the front. #DublinRacingFestival #rteracing pic.twitter.com/EZFevfEjqi— RTÉ Racing (@RTEracing) February 6, 2021
Mullins said: "I thought that was a helluva performance from a novice. He jumped and galloped, and gave no quarter to any horse.
"You couldn't ask for anything more. He probably stood a little far back off the last, and Paul said he stood a bit far off another fence, but other than that it was as good as you’d get from a horse having his third run over fences.
"He went a good even gallop in front, and the time (quicker than Chacun Pour Soi in preceding race) tells you how good a performance it was.
"Obviously when you get that type of performance you’re delighted, because you don’t ever expect that.
"He’s every inch a chaser to look at. If you were going to draw a picture of a chaser he’s the one you’d draw."
When asked if he is looking forward to a clash with Shishkin, Mullins added: "I don’t know, I’d rather it was without Shishkin!
"It looks like it’s going to be a race to look forward to from both sides. Shishkin is a helluva horse. It’s great that we have one from each side of the Irish sea going there, and we’re looking forward to it."
Gaillard Du Mesnil (13-8F) got favourite-backers off to a flying start with a clear-cut victory in the Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors ’50k Cheltenham Bonus For Stable Staff’ Novice Hurdle.
An impressive winner at the track over the Christmas period, the Willie Mullins-trained grey was well supported to successfully step up in distance and class for this two-mile-six-furlong Grade One contest.
Having travelled strongly in midfield for much of the race under Paul Townend, Gaillard Du Mesnil moved into the slipstream of his front-running stablemate Stattler early in the home straight, before taking over on the approach to the final flight.
The five-year-old never looked in danger of being caught from that point – galloping all the way to the line to score by five lengths, with Gentlemansgame pipping Stattler to the runner-up spot.
"That was a nice start," said Mullins.
"He was very keen and I thought he was going to pay the penalty, but it shows how big an engine he has that he was able to still find more after it looking like Danny (Mullins, on Stattler) had stole the race.
"It was a nice victory in the end and he must be a fair sort to come from that far back in that type of contest.
"The Ballymore would look the race for him at this point. It was a tremendous staying performance in what looked a real quality field."
Of Stattler, he added: "He was was very good and Danny gave him a well-judged ride from the front.
"That puts him in line for the Albert Bartlett and hopefully Ronnie (Bartlett, owner) can win some of his own money back!"
A Wave Of The Sea (12-1) led home a one-two for trainer Joseph O'Brien and owner JP McManus in the Matheson Handicap Chase.
Winner of the Grade One Spring Juvenile Hurdle at this meeting last year, A Wave Of The Sea knuckled down for 5lb claimer Simon Torrens to see off stablemate Top Moon by a neck, with favourite The Shunter best of the rest in third.
O’Brien said: "It’s nice to get a winner, and I’m delighted to win a big one for JP.
"He’s struggled a little bit in Graded company (over fences), and then when you go into handicaps it’s a different ball game.
"I thought he jumped very well today – probably as good as he’s jumped. That was probably the difference.
"He could easily go to Cheltenham. We’ll see how he comes out of it and see what the handicapper does."
McManus and Torrens also combined to win the other lucrative handicap on the card, with the Pat Fahy-trained Drop The Anchor (8-1) lunging late to deny Champagne Gold in the Ladbrokes Hurdle.
Fahy said: "I’m delighted. I was looking at a full parade ring beforehand thinking to myself 'imagine being the best horse in this with all the big names’, but I won it.
"I thought early in the race he wasn’t winging them all, and he had to be tough. He needs a test at the finish of a race.
"He’s not big but he’s really tough. It took him a while to win, but he needed time to strengthen up."
Kilcruit (11-10F) barely came off the bridle in winning the Goffs Future Stars INH Flat Race as Willie Mullins recorded a fourth winner on the afternoon.
One of three runners in the Grade Two contest for the champion trainer, Kilcruit was clear first string following an impressive display at Navan in December.
Ridden confidently throughout, the trainer's son Patrick remained motionless as his mount cruised up alongside the pacesetters early in the home straight before pulling 12 lengths clear – confirming himself a major contender for the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham.
Mullins senior said: "I thought Patrick had picked the wrong one – how wrong was I? I thought Ramillies (finished fifth) put up a very good performance here at Christmas, but Patrick has huge confidence in this horse – and now I can see why.
"My mother bred him, Patrick’s granny. He was particularly pleased to be riding a winner for her.
"It was a superb performance in what was a very good race. I thought he’d be a nice horse, but I didn’t think he had that sort of capability – that was unreal what he produced there."