Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite Presenting Percy made a successful return to action in the John Mulhern Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park.
Despite having been off the track since securing his second Cheltenham Festival success in the RSA Chase in March, Pat Kelly's stable star heads the market for the blue riband at Prestbury Park in six weeks' time - and did nothing to dent his claims on his belated reappearance.
The eight-year-old was the 9/4 market leader to claim this Grade Two prize for the second year in succession and travelled powerfully for much of the three-mile journey in the hands of Davy Russell.
He was chased into the straight by the Willie Mullins-trained trio of Bapaume, Killultagh Vic and Limini, where Russell had to get to work.
However, Presenting Percy responded well to his rider's urgings, going to the last with his ears pricked and ultimately finishing well on top as he passed the post a length and a quarter to the good.
Bapaume beat stablemate Killultagh Vic to the runner-up spot by a head.
Sky Bet reacted by cutting the Pat Kelly-trained horse to 11/4 from 4/1 (Non Runner No Bet) for the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup at The Festival in March.
Winning owner Philip Reynolds was understandably thrilled after seeing his charge being clapped out of the parade ring by his adoring fans.
He said: "I can't believe it. I know we won this race last year and I'm sure most people thought he was going to go and do it again.
"People have taken to this horse and with that comes a lot of excitement and a lot of pressure. I felt the pressure, with it comes a lot of responsibility.
"We've been trying to look after this horse to give him every chance to get him to the big day, where we all know we want to be, in March.
"Pat and I are very close and go back a long way. He doesn't say an awful lot, he leaves that to me and I'm not sure I do a great job for him in terms of saying a few words."
Reynolds went on: "We've been very patient. I sent back the horse to Pat in early August and we really were expecting that we'd have had as many runs coming here today (as last year).
"The plan was to come here today or three weeks' time (Red Mills Chase). You've seen the ground and what it's done to other horses so we've sat and we've sat (for suitably soft ground).
"I know people were wondering whether we'd actually retired him! If I could have got Pat last night on the phone I think I might have retired him as my heart was all over the place.
"We've been patient and patience has paid off. He was in tremendous form, he was fit enough and had done enough work.
"Pat has always said he's one of the most special horses he's ever seen, let alone trained. With every day that passes I'm beginning to believe him a little bit more."
Looking ahead to his likely tilt at Gold Cup glory, Reynolds added: "Coming in here today I thought 4-1 about Percy for the Gold Cup was very skinny having not seen him all year.
"I know the reason people have said he was 4-1 was that other horses out there have fluffed their lines, but there are two decent horses out there in Kemboy and Clan Des Obeaux.
"I thought they deserved to be a lot shorter in the market than Percy was before today, but maybe he's just put down his marker."
In the immediate aftermath, Russell raised the possibility of the Stayers' Hurdle as an option at Cheltenham if needed, and Reynolds said: "We have spoken about about that (Stayers' Hurdle) during the winter, as he's only had five runs over fences.
"I'd be telling you a lie if I didn't say we'd had that chat over the winter when we were struggling to get the horse out.
"But I've had an awful lot of horses over the years and an awful lot of bad ones. I said with this horse last year I was going to give him every chance to get to the big day and I'm going to stick with that.
"We'd like to get two runs into him before we travel. The plan was to come here and then back here in three weeks' time (Red Mills Chase) and that remains the plan, all being well.
"Fingers crossed he comes out of this race OK."
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