Outlander showed improvement to win a thrilling battle for the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown this afternoon.
A field of 13 went to post for a proper, competitive Grade 1 contest over three miles.
Arctic Skipper took the field along through the early stages with Don Poli to the inner and Smashing.
As the field left the back straight for the first time, Zabana moved up on the outside to join Arctic Skipper and the grey Smashing.
It was Smashing who moved to the head of affairs as the field passed the stands and turned left onto their final circuit, with Outlander at the back, but maybe no more than 6 lengths off the leader.
Racing down the back, Smashing opened up a lead of about 5 lengths over Zabana and Arctic Skipper with Don Poli, Wounded Warrior and Djakadam next.
Six out and Smashing’s lead had been cut to 2 lengths in what was still a wide-open race.
At the fourth last Smashing was joined by Arctic Skipper and Don Poli, with Zabana out wide and then Djakadam and More Of That.
Don Poli landed in front at the third last but all 13 horses were still in touch.
On the home bend, Zabana and Don Poli led with Valseur Lido travelling powerfully with Outlander also looming large between horses, while the improving Djakadam was a little short of room.
At the last, the Gigginstown trio of Outlander, Valseur Lido and Don Poli jumped together, and on the flat there was momentarily a line of four, before Outlander, under Jack Kennedy, surged on in a dramatic finish, winning by a couple of lengths to beat last season’s Gold Cup second and third, with Don Poli just getting second on this occasion from Djakadam.
Valseur Lido faded on the run-in and came home fourth, with Taquin Du Seuil a staying on fifth and then More Of That.
This was a notable training performance from Gordon Elliott who saddled the first two home.
Kennedy said: “He ran a great race the last day in the John Durkan, a length and a quarter behind Djakadam, and I was fairly lucky Bryan picked Valseur Lido so I was lucky to get on Outlander.
“He travelled and jumped brilliantly. He didn’t miss a beat the whole way. He might have got in a bit deep to the last with a circuit to go but, other than that, he never missed one.
“I thought going to the last maybe I was there a bit soon – it was a lonely old run-in – but he dug deep and kept going. I was afraid something would come and do me but he kept going.
“All the family are here and it was great riding my 100th winner and my first Grade One.”
Elliott was especially proud of his protege.
He said: “He’s a big part of the team at home and he’s my man, so I’m trying to bring him along. I’m delighted for him.”
The County Meath handler had intended to send Outlander for the King George VI Chase at Kempton but made a late switch when Thistlecrack, the eventual winner, was announced as a runner.
The eight-year-old was also under consideration for a much smaller race at Tramore on Sunday, but the decision to go for the Lexus proved inspired as he produced a career-best effort on what was his fifth start of the season since leaving Willie Mullins.
Elliott went on: “It was touch and go whether he ran here or went to Tramore, but with the ground drying out we decided to come here.
“He was only beaten about a length by Djakadam at Punchestown the last day, and one jump made the difference between winning and losing.
“I suppose the obvious race is to come back here for the Gold Cup (in February).
“I’m delighted with Don Poli, and I’d say the Grand National is the plan with him.”
Winning owner Michael O’Leary said: “The best news from the race was probably Don Poli after the way he ran in Down Royal.
“It was a great training performance by Gordon with the first two. Outlander only ran a few weeks ago, and he’s also done a great job getting Don Poli back to form.
“I thought coming here that if we had a Gold Cup horse it was Valseur Lido. He didn’t finish out his race and maybe he will go back for the Ryanair.”