Coko Beach looks to have booked a return to Aintree having led home a Gordon Elliott one-two-three in the QuinnBet Grand National Trial Handicap Chase at Punchestown.
Fourth to stablemate Death Duty in this 12 months ago, the eight-year-old went on to finish a well-held eighth behind Noble Yeats in the Randox Grand National two runs later and could now follow a similar path having found the scoresheet for the first time since February 2021.
The classy grey arrived at the Kildare track on the back of a respectable fourth in the Thyestes at Gowran last month and was sent off the shortest of the four Cullentra House representatives at 7-1.
Never far from the pace in the hands of Ben Harvey, he edged his way to the front travelling with plenty of zest at four out.
Sam Curling's favourite Angels Dawn was also moving menacingly into contention and looked a real threat when moving to Coko Beach’s tail three out.
However, the race was soon over as a contest when Angels Dawn unshipped Cian Quirke at the second-last and all that the blinkered Coko Beach had to do was burn off the retreating Stones And Roses and storm up the straight for a commanding five-and-a-half-length success over the defending champion Death Duty, with Defi Bleu the bronze medallist a further half length back.
Coko Beach leads them home in the @Quinn_Bet Grand National Trial Handicap Chase, with the galloping grey putting up a dominant performance to score in the hands of Ben Harvey for trainer @gelliott_racing 👏 pic.twitter.com/tnoOcPFAxz— Punchestown (@punchestownrace) February 19, 2023
He said: "We said we’d ride him a little bit more restrained today, just take our time a little bit more as we’ve been making a lot of use of him lately.
"I thought he ran a good race, he jumped well and he said when he got to the front he didn’t do a stroke. He gave the last a big jump and it’s nice to win it.
"I’d imagine he’ll go to Aintree, there’s not much at Cheltenham for him. I’d imagine they’ll all be heading towards the Nationals, English and Irish.
"The winner runs his race all the time and is a grand horse. He finished eighth in the National last year and was right there until the third-last.
"Death Duty ran well, he said he would have been bang there only for missing the fourth- and third-last.
"He’s a good horse but he’s not easy to train"
Willie Mullins strengthened his grasp on the Cheltenham Champion Bumper when Ballyburn powered home to land the Hospitality At Festival 2023 (Pro/Am) INH Flat Race.
An impressive winner of his sole point-to-point, he was sent off the 7-4 second-favourite behind Irish Panther in the hands of Patrick Mullins for his Rules bow.
Keen throughout when tracking the pace-setting Quantum Storm, the son of Flemensfirth took some time to hit top gear once entering the straight, but had the after-burners switched firmly on at the finish in registering a going-away two-and-a-quarter-length success.
The winner is as short as 7-1 for the Cheltenham Festival bumper, which means the Closutton handler is now responsible for five of the top six in the market for the Prestbury Park Grade One he won 12 months ago with Facile Vega.
"It was a very good performance from the horse and jockey. He was too keen the whole way and to produce a run like that after running so keen for a mile and three-quarters showed that he has a lot left in the locker," said Mullins.
"He's a horse that we’re really looking forward to going over jumps. He looks a real chaser in the making, however he probably booked a ticket to Cheltenham with that run.
"He looks an exciting recruit for Ronnie Bartlett and David Manasseh, who is a football agent.
"It looked a fair race, in very tough ground."
Mullins was also on the scoresheet when the Danny Mullins-ridden Hauturiere (5-1) took advantage of favourite Harmonya Maker unseating Jordan Gainford to claim the Listed Apple's Jade Mares Novice Hurdle.
Hauturiere gets up late to land the Listed Apple's Jade Mares Novice Hurdle in thrilling fashion, with the six-year-old reeling in the gallant Shecouldbeanything in the hands of @dan2231 to score for trainer @WillieMullinsNH 🏆 pic.twitter.com/wU8OcSjS3f— Punchestown (@punchestownrace) February 19, 2023
Stealthy Tom enhanced Enda Bolger’s fine record in the ARKequine Aquatabs Inline PP Hogan Memorial Cross Country Chase.
The Howardstown handler has won seven of the last 10 running’s of the this contest with the last four victories all on behalf of leading owner JP McManus.
And it was the green and gold silks that were carried to success once again by Simon Torrens as he came home a length and a quarter clear of 7-2 favourite Singing Banjos aboard the 8-1 shot.
A trip to the cross-country equivalent at the Cheltenham Festival is not out of the question for the winner, but it appears that all roads lead back to Kildare track for the La Touche Cup during the Punchestown Festival.
Torrens was also aboard Patrick Foley’s Verdant Place (5-2 favourite) when winning the David Trundley Artist At Punchestown Handicap Hurdle.