PAUL NICHOLLS probably faced the current season with a sinking heart after a rash of his veteran stars retired, but Silviniaco Conti reignited the Ditcheat fires with his Betfair Chase success.
Former stablemate Kauto Star was given a standing ovation by the public ay Haydock as he led the field down to the start for the Grade One feature. Silviniaco Conti has a long way to go to match his exploits, but he could have done no more under Ruby Walsh.
The 7/4 chance, so impressive in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby, jumped superbly at the head of affairs throughout and kept up the gallop in the home straight to defeat 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Long Run by two and a half lengths.
Nicholls: "I said if he won we'd go for the Gold Cup, and that is the plan.
"You couldn't leave him in his box on Gold Cup day after that performance.
"I'm not going to rush him and I might go straight to the Gold Cup with him.
"He could be really interesting, come Cheltenham."
Trustan Times put up a fine weight-carrying performance to win the Betfair-sponsored "Fixed Brush" Handicap Hurdle, while Quartz De Thaix (5/1) also gave weight to all his rivals as he continued his resurgence in the Better Prices On Betfair Mobile Handicap Chase under Liam Treadwell.
Long Run's trainer Nicky Henderson suffered another notable reverse as Finian's Rainbow was eclipsed at Ascot, but at least Oscar Whisky was on target in the Coral Hurdle.
A faller at the last when right in contention in the race last year, the 8/15 favourite was always in command under Barry Geraghty and cruised eight lengths clear of Raya Star.
"He loved the ground, and that was a very smart performance," said Henderson.
"We thought we would go to Cheltenham next month, then Ffos Las, possibly Fontwell, miss Cheltenham and go to Aintree.
"But if it came up soft, you'd have to run him in the Champion Hurdle."
Captain Chris (7/2) became the second of Philip Hobbs' star names to look right back to their old selves within a week when taking the Amlin 1965 Chase, in which Finian's Rainbow laboured home last of the four.
Hobbs said: "The King George would be the obvious race to go for now."
The wet weather ensured a blank day in Britain yesterday but any early-risers were treated to a thrilling finish to the Japan Cup in Tokyo.
While Red Cadeaux fared best of the European raiders in eighth, Gentildonna and Arc second Orfevre battled it out in the final furlong for the Grade One prize.
Gentildonna appeared to bump into her rival when switching for a run but she was confirmed the nose winner following a stewards' inquiry.