Winged Leader could have booked his ticket to the Cheltenham Festival in March after he recorded an impressive front-running display to take the Thurles Racecourse Hunter Chase on Sunday afternoon.
Jumping off disputing the advantage with last year’s Cheltenham Festival runner-up Billaway, Barry O’Neill elected to send the 4/1 shot on after jumping the third fence.
As six runners raced into the back straight for the final time, Winged Leader began to increase his advantage and one-by-one his rivals began to come under pressure on the climb uphill.
Surprisingly, one of them was Billaway whose regular rider Patrick Mullins was having to encourage him along as he briefly dropped into fourth position at the fourth-last where he made a mistake.
A mistake at the next fence from the leader in what bar that error was an excellent round of jumping, was not significant enough to allow a rallying Billaway and an improving It’s All Guesswork to get any closer and after two electric jumps along the side of the course, by the time they arrived at the homebend Winged Leader had upped his advantage to five lengths.
The fall of Warriors Tale at the third fence on the opening circuit ensured the final fence was omitted, and with that obstacle out of the equation, a fence which had proven costly for Winged Leader in the corresponding race 12 months ago, his supporters never had any moments of concern up the home straight.
Winged Leader ultimately crossed the line some 12 lengths clear of Billaway who regained the second spot ahead of Its All Guesswork, who was a further seven and a half lengths back in third.
This latest victory for the nine-time winning pointer, his fourth in the hunter chase sphere continues a great campaign for owner Jenny O’Kane and John Hegarty, and Winged Leader is now set to join their Vaucelet in also getting an entry for the Cheltenham Festival Hunter Chase, a race that Billaway is now top-priced 9/1 second favourite behind Billaway.
The victory completed a good weekend under rules for the multiple champion point-to-point rider O’Neill as he had also guided Paul Nolan’s ex-pointer Joyeux Machin to victory in the bumper at Navan 24 hours earlier.
The Thurles hunter chase was marred by the fatal third fence fall of Warriors Tale, a former hunter chase winner at Cork last year for Eugene O’Sullivan and his owner the late Trevor Hemmings.