A RECORD crowd of 18,208 turned up for Trials Day at Cheltenham on Saturday and were treated to a spectacular afternoon’s action, led by Sprinter Sacre in the Victor Chandler Chase.
Making it a magnificent seven wins over fences, trainer Nicky Henderson admitted he was a relieved man when it was all over.
Mad Moose was a gallant, if distant, second after leading through the early stages but was 14 lengths adrift of the jumping game’s new two-mile colossus – very much Frankel-esque.
All roads now lead back to Cheltenham and the Queen Mother Champion Chase for Henderson’s superstar, who obliged as 1-5 favourite in the supremely capable hands of Barry Geraghty.
Henderson said: “Barry’s confidence in him is unbelievable. He knows you can jump anything with him.
“He’s such a gorgeous horse to look at, you would think he would be something special. He knows he is special and I suppose we are all starting to believe he might be.”
Sprinter Sacre is 1-3 favourite with Ladbrokes for his March assignment.
Henderson also now houses the Triumph Hurdle favourite after Rolling Star (5-2) mastered the odds-on Irish Saint close home to make a winning British debut by two-and-a-quarter lengths in the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial.
Ladbrokes World Hurdle hope Reve De Sivola was all out to see off Henderson’s Oscar Whisky by a neck in a pulsating Rewards4Racing Cleeve Hurdle under Richard Johnson.
Trainer Nick Williams said: “The World Hurdle has to be our next step, as we need three miles and he doesn’t have to have this sort of ground, although he wouldn’t want it very quick.”
Oscar Whisky could renew rivalries in the World Hurdle, according to Henderson.
Another of Denis O’Regan’s now typical waiting rides was just enough for Cape Tribulation to prevent a showstopping comeback by Imperial Commander in the Argento Chase. For National Hunt fans starved of action for days, the feature event of a glittering card almost provided a dream outcome for local hero Imperial Commander, the 2010 Gold Cup winner and course regular who had been sidelined with various ailments for not far off two years.
The vigour remained with the veteran as he tore through the final circuit and opponents dropped gradually away but O’Regan shadowed Paddy Brennan, redoubling his efforts when Cape Tribulation (7-1) jumped sloppily in the home straight and summoned half a length extra in a memorable finish.
Katenko (4-1 favourite) continued his rapid progression through the ranks with a most impressive success in the Murphy Group Chase for trainer Venetia Williams.
In Ireland, Benefficient was a shock winner of a Grade One race for the second time in his career when taking a dramatic Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase at Leopardstown.
A 50-1 chance when landing the Deloitte Novice Hurdle last winter, this time Tony Martin’s charge made the most of a fall at the fourth fence of hot favourite Arvika Ligeonniere and had just headed Oscars Well when he made a hash of the last.
That left Benefficient, the 10-1 outsider of the three, to come home 20 lengths clear under Bryan Cooper.
Yesterday, Hurricane Fly won the BHP Irish Champion Hurdle for the third successive year in imperious fashion for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh.
The nine-year-old never came off the bridle in registering his 14th Grade One success, setting himself up perfectly for his bid to regain the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Binocular travelled well for a long way but was soon left in Hurricane Fly’s wake and Nicky Henderson’s 2010 champion just failed to get past Thousand Stars for second. Hurricane Fly (1-6 favourite) won by five lengths.
Mullins said: “He’s well used to these conditions and he flies through that ground so everything went according to plan. I’ve had faith in him all year and he seems to be in the sort of form he was two years ago.”
Mullins and Walsh were also on the mark with Pont Alexandre, who now finds himself as outright favourite for the Neptune at Cheltenham after an easy win in the Synergy Security Solutions Novice Hurdle.