Paul Nicholls' star profited on off-day for Grands Crus, writes Ian McClean
It was a grey day at Cheltenham yesterday for jumping headquarters' traditional curtain-raiser – the Paddy Power Gold Cup – but not in the way that punters who gambled favourite Grands Crus into 7/4 at the off of this ferociously competitive handicap would have wished.
In attritional conditions, the 18-runner line-up had distilled itself down to just two grey horses galloping into the home straight ahead of the vainly pursuing pack with victory to decide.
But Grands Crus wasn't one of them. And as Al Ferof and Walkon motored towards the second-last, Tom Scudamore was already calling it a day on Grands Crus which declined the invitation to even jump it.
Only six horses ultimately completed the gruelling two-and-a-half-mile course as Al Ferof demonstrated just too much class for Walkon from the home turn to register a comprehensive win on the first outing in his sophomore year.
The winning margin was three lengths, with 12 lengths back to third Nadiya De La Vega and a further six back to Irish raider Casey Top, which made a valiant attempt from the front to outrun his 40/1 SP.
Al Ferof's win, remarkably, provided trainer Paul Nicholls with his first ever victory in the prestigious race.
He concluded that the second-season horses (Silvianaco Conti, Cristal Bonus, Kauto Stone) are running so well from the yard now that "they mustn't have been right last year". Reflecting on his previous attempts, Nicholls added: "Class horses win this and some of our past runners haven't been well handicapped and probably weren't good enough. Ruby said this was the first one of ours he has ridden in the race that was cantering all the way."
On the subject of cantering, it was a close-run thing to have Al Ferof ready in time for the race as he only actually began cantering on September 10 owing to a field-injury (the rest of the string began in mid-July) and it was down to a gallop at Wincanton last Thursday which persuaded the trainer that his grey seven-year-old was ripe enough for yesterday's challenge.
However, the spoils of victory were particularly sweet for owner John Hales, whose Granit Jack was fatally injured in a fall when travelling well in the lead in this very race back in 2007.
He declared after yesterday's victory: "That was a stunning performance, as good as from any horse I have owned. The rain concerned me today, but I thought it was an outstanding run.
"I wasn't as confident when I started looking at the race yesterday – I thought it was going to be difficult to give weight away to horses like Grands Crus.
"I think we have decided we will go to the King George now, and he is a horse that we are going to have look after."
The rain (6mm overnight, or the equivalent of quarter of a million gallons apparently) ultimately proved of far greater concern to the connections of Grands Crus.
Both jockey and trainer were palpably shaken after the abysmal effort of the favourite, but were at a complete loss to explain it.
David Pipe reflected that he "wasn't ever really travelling," whilst a downbeat Tom Scudamore expressed himself "utterly disappointed . . . I can't work out what went wrong. There is nothing to say why he has not finished his race". It later transpired the horse had lost a near-fore plate.
The Paddy Power aside, the Pipe yard has enjoyed a lucrative Open meeting already, and added a further two wins yesterday to the pair it took home here on Friday.
Our Father became the second grey novice chaser (after Dynaste on Friday) from the yard to triumph at the meeting when, patiently ridden around the outside by Timmy Murphy, he made the most of the weight he was receiving from favourite Sire Collonges to trump him after the home turn.
The other major race – the long-distance handicap chase with the new Henrietta Knight moniker – produced a pulsating finish that again excited the bookmakers more than the punters as 25/1 outsider Monbeg Dude just outstayed favourite (and Pricewise selection) Bradley after nearly three-and-a-half miles and 22 fences.
Poetically, perhaps, the winner was trained by Tom Scudamore's brother Michael and provided him with the biggest success of his infant training career.
The elated trainer said afterwards: "I am so pleased and credit goes to the owners. I wanted to go to Wetherby today and they said we are going to Cheltenham, so they deserve all the credit."
There were many punters yesterday who would have been happier to have paid the expenses to send him up the A1.