Any Second Now edged out Escaria Ten in a thrilling finish to the Tote Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse.
Both are leading players for the Randox Grand National at Aintree, with Any Second Now having finished third in the race last year while Escaria Ten was a general 16-1 shot before this race for the world famous marathon.
Any Second Now was conceding 8lb to his rival and it looked as though the extra weight might take its toll as the Gordon Elliott-trained Escaria Ten set sail at the turn for home, with favourite Burrows Saint dropping away very quickly when asked to up his effort.
However, the Ted Walsh-trained Any Second Now kept finding for pressure and Mark Walsh just got his head on front at the line to win by a nose as a 6-1 chance, with 42 lengths back to the disappointing Burrows Saint.
Any Second Now is now the outright favourite for National glory with most firms, with quotes ranging from 10-1 to 12-1.
Any Second Now gets up in the dying strides to deny Escaria Ten in the Grade 3 @thetotecom Bobbyjo Chase, scoring for trainer Ted Walsh and securing a double on the card for the in-form Mark Walsh 🏆 pic.twitter.com/9ehPVGjRNr— FairyhouseRacecourse (@Fairyhouse) February 26, 2022
Walsh said: "He can win at two miles, or he can win at three miles, or he can win at three and a quarter miles. That's what you need going to the National, a bit of luck. He’s in good old nick.
"Six weeks to go and he didn’t have that hard of a race, he got a couple of smacks at the back of the last. He’s 10 years of age.
"I’d say Burrows Saint probably has a problem with his puff (wind) again, he cut out very quickly turning in when travelling really well.
"The second horse (Escaria Ten) is a good horse. There was a Thyestes winner (Coko Beach) in it, a Kim Muir winner (Any Second Now) in it and an Irish National winner (Burrows Saint) so it was a tidy race. The second horse was third in the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham and stays well.
"I was happy with my fella today and I’m glad I got a race into him. I’m delighted he got a few smacks and he had to go and do it. There was no point touring around. You want to be competitive as it is six weeks to the National, he needs to be fit and well for it.
"I’m delighted, I couldn’t have asked for better. I was coming off the stand and I was delighted if he was second, and I was delighted that the verdict went our way.
"He’ll go there (Aintree) fit and well with a clear run and everything going right for him."
Mark Walsh and owner JP McManus were completing a big-race double after Icare Allen earlier galloped home a cosy winner of the Norman Colfer Winning Fair Juvenile Hurdle.
Trained by Willie Mullins, Icare Allen (4-9F) was sent off favourite for the Grade Three affair having finished fifth behind stablemate Vauban at the top level last time.
It was a two-horse race judged on the betting, with only White Pepper sent off at single figure odds, and so it proved, with Icare Allen tracking his pace-setting market rival until Walsh took the brakes off with a couple to jump.
Icare Allen responded in style and cruised home seven and a half lengths clear, with Prairie Dancer collaring White Pepper for second in the shadow of the post.
Icare Allen regains the winning thread with victory in the Grade 3 Norman Colfer Winning Fair Juvenile Hurdle, breezing clear to justify favouritism under the red-hot Mark Walsh for @WillieMullinsNH 🥇 pic.twitter.com/8XQi7bidip— FairyhouseRacecourse (@Fairyhouse) February 26, 2022
Mullins is unsure if he will go for the Grade One contest or take a handicap alternative at Cheltenham.
He said: "He did it well, he jumped better. He just was a lot better than he was at Christmas.
"We’ll roll on – we haven’t decided where we are going to go. He’ll go across the water, he’s in the Boodles and he is in the Triumph but we haven’t made up our minds yet."