Commander Of Fleet got up on the line in a thrilling, head-bobbing finish to the Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle under a well-judged ride from 5lb claimer Shane Fitzgerald.
The Gordon Elliott-trained winner, sent off at 50-1, was one of the few guaranteed to enjoy the testing ground and big field, having won a 23-runner handicap at Navan in early December.
The Jessica Harrington-trained Ashdale Bob set sensible fractions in front for the conditions and was still going well in front turning for home, jumping the last three lengths clear of his 22 rivals.
However, the stamina-sapping ground proved his undoing. Jack Foley’s mount tired soon after, as Fastorslow and Commander Of Fleet bore down on the seven-year-old, who faded quickly, eventually finishing third, a further five and a half lengths behind the front two in the two-miles-five-furlong contest.
Darragh O’Keefe’s mount looked to have got the better of the scrap to the line and in a titanic battle, briefly got his head in front, only for Commander Of Fleet to get his head down when it mattered to score by a short head.
Camprond who was always stalking the pace, did not find much from the second-last and finished fourth.
The victory was the first for Elliott at the Festival after missing last year’s meeting due to the suspension he was given when an image emerged on social media of him sitting on a dead horse on his gallops.
Elliott said: “It’s great to train any winner here, especially for Gigginstown and it’s great for everyone in the yard.
“It might not have been one we were expecting but that is the game we are in, they are mostly running well. I often get to Thursday with no winner so we weren’t panicking.
“I’d say the ground made the difference to this lad, and he was handy throughout. A lot of my others just couldn’t handle the ground.
“The winner is obviously a good horse on his day. I don’t know much about the jockey, but he’s had a few winners for us and seems a nice fella.
“Every winner I train is important, whether it’s here, Tramore, Downpatrick, I’m in this game just to train winners.”
Michael O’Leary, under whose Gigginstown House Stud banner the winner runs, said: “That was wonderful and it gets Gordon and Team Cullentra on the board.
“It was marvellous performance under that weight on ground that has gone very soft now.
“It was a great ride from Shane. I thought he had him in the right position the whole way round and he battled on up the hill.
“I think it’s testament to not just Gordon but the whole team in Cullentra. They had a tough year last year, but they’re back here with lots of good horses. The team work incredibly hard and this vindicates the hard work they put in last year.”
Elliott, who made it a double on the afternoon with Delta Work beating stablemate Tiger Roll in a thrilling finish to the cross-country race, was denied a treble when Global Citizen caused a 28-1 shock in the two-mile Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Chase.
The Elliott-trained Andy Dufresne (100-30 favourite), named after the main protagonist in the blockbuster movie Shawshank Redemption, eventually got out of jail and threw down a challenge approaching the second-last, but by then the bird had flown.
The 10-year-old Global Citizen, who was having his first run over fences since December 2020, was always up with the pace, although looked cooked for the minor honours when Editeur Du Gite went on four out.
Yet Kielan Woods’ mount was soon on terms again and after jumping upsides at the second-last, drew readily clear.
Though he got lonely in front as Editeur Du Gite tired, the Ben Pauling-trained Global Citizen never looked like being collared by Andy Dufresne, and went on to score by three lengths, with Frero Banbou, almost tailed off approaching the top of the hill, staying on stoutly another three lengths further back in third.
Pauling, who moves into a new yard the week after Aintree, said: “He’d needed time to come back to himself and dropped to a good mark having completely lost his way. But I’ve always had faith in him.
“He filled himself up and went for home on a track that suited him.
“It was a great ride by Kielan who had won the race before.”