Russell’s 11-year-old may be in the twilight of his career but he showed he still has plenty of heart for a battle as he fended off Harry The Viking by a head in the valuable handicap chase over three miles and five furlongs.
The 8-1 winner is part-owned by Lesley Gillies, whose son Campbell rode the horse to win seven times before his death on holiday in 2012. Russell said: “I love this race, that’s the third time we have won it. Silver By Nature [dual winner] was a legend and so is this lad. The Scottish National is the plan now, he has proved he stays. We didn’t even enter him for Aintree, so he will go straight there.”
Top Notch booked his ticket for Cheltenham with a facile success in the Betfred “Six Best Odds Races Daily” Victor Ludorum Juvenile Hurdle, but the more salient Festival clues were on offer at Ascot.
Balder Succes is now a best-priced 8-1 for the Ryanair Chase as he stepped up to the mark with a career-best performance to account for some useful rivals in the Betfair Ascot Chase, although his task was eased by the ninth-fence departure of 6-4 favourite Ptit Zig.
Moving well throughout the two-mile-five-furlong contest in the hands of Wayne Hutchinson, the Alan King-trained runner took up the lead at the fourth-last in effortless fashion and held off game mare Ma Filleule by three and a quarter lengths. “He was back in his comfort zone. I’m thrilled and relieved – they were just getting at him early over two miles,” said King. “We’ve got to stick to the Ryanair route.” Nicky Henderson, trainer of the runner-up, confirmed that Ma Filleule is likely to clash horns with Balder Succes in the Ryanair.
Paul Nicholls remains upbeat about the Cheltenham chances of Ptit Zig despite his premature exit. Nicholls said: “He has not had a hard race and we will take him home, school him and sharpen him up for the JLT at Cheltenham.”
Arpege D’Alene (5-2) caused a minor upset in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle when toppling odds-on favourite Tea For Two but winning trainer Nicholls ruled out Cheltenham, with Aintree a possibility.
Having turned over an odds-on favourite in the first race Nicholls and Twiston-Davies found themselves on the end of an odds-on reversal as Ainsi Fideles (6-1) produced a taking performance to land the racinguk.com Reynoldstown Novices’ Chase.
Tackling three-miles for the first time of asking, the five-year-old coped with the step up in trip well, running out a comfortable six-length scorer. Unlike last year’s winner and subsequent RSA Chase hero O’Faolains Boy, the Simon Munir-and Isaac Souede-owned gelding is not certain to take a trip to Cheltenham. “He had a mid-season break and his winning form was on better ground, but we knew it was going to be a small field so it was worth entering at the five-day stage. Then it cut up so we thought we would take our chance,” said trainer David Pipe. “We may go to Aintree or Punchestown, but we will have a word with Anthony Bromley, Simon Munir and Isaac Souede.”
Champagne Fever got back on track with a smooth victory in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran and trainer Willie Mullins is now looking to the Festival with his talented grey. Sent off the 8-15 favourite, Champagne Fever coasted to victory from Texas Jack and made amends for falling last time out. Mullins said: “That’s a nice confidence builder. It’s a nice prize to win at our local track, it’s a very good prize on our doorstep. I’m just happy to be going to Cheltenham on a positive note, and I’d imagine he will either run in the Ryanair or the Queen Mother.”
Very Wood booked his ticket for a return visit to Cheltenham when hitting form with victory in the Ten Up Novice Chase at Navan yesterday. Noel Meade had nursed Very Wood back to health after the six-year-old was pulled up on his previous two starts and his hard work was rewarded with a Grade Two success at odds of 13-2.