Bristol De Mai reminds Haydock rivals of class
When Bristol De Mai won last year's Betfair Chase in the mud by 57 lengths he was given such a high rating by the handicapper it raised a few eyebrows, but on good going yesterday - and not a speck of mud in sight - he returned to Haydock to win the £200,000 (€226,000) race for the second year in succession.
Yesterday's race was run against the backdrop of weighing-room disquiet about the height and stiffness of the fences. But the five runners, including the first two in last season's Gold Cup, are the best in the country and it did not take them long to realise the obstacles were there to be jumped.
For two and a half miles the quintet were tightly bunched with, for the main part, 13-2 shot Bristol De Mai leading the favourite Might Bite and Native River. But, in the home straight, the others gradually came under pressure and the further they went, the clearer it became that they would struggle to close the small lead Bristol De Mai had opened up - mainly due to some superb jumping.
The Gold Cup winner Native River stayed on for a respectable four-length second ahead of his stable companion Thistlecrack, a further length and a half away in third. Clan Des Obeaux was fourth, while the disappointment of the race was Might Bite. Challenging for the lead three out, his stride went to nothing after the last and he almost walked over the line.
Bristol De Mai is now four wins from four starts at Haydock, but his trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, claiming the race for the third time, dismissed any suggestion that he was simply a horse for the course.
"He's just a very good horse," he said. "But he's very fragile. He's brilliant early season but keeping him right is very difficult. After this race last year little things went wrong and he went off the boil."
He added: "It's more fun being the underdog if you then go and stuff them. It reminds me of Imperial Commander when he beat Kauto Star and Denman. We know he's very good. He jumped brilliantly and he's never needed soft ground. Daryl [Jacob] gave him a superb ride - he got the pace just right and I thought he had the others struggling some way out. He out-jumped the others and he was fit."
Jacob was delighted. "It's brilliant for the horse after what he did last year and to come back completely forgotten. It was an incredible horse race with five fantastic horses, so I hope everyone appreciated it. You get these races in Ireland quite often but not in England."
Highest praise, however, came from the vanquished trainer of Native River and Thistlecrack, Colin Tizzard. "We need to look at the grey horse," he said.
"He's unbeaten here in four starts. He's a good horse and first time out is as good as anything. I'm as happy as you can be when you have just been beaten with mine. Native River ran right to the line and Richard [Johnson] thought he'd be better off at Cheltenham, which is just as well, and Thistlecrack is back to near his best. But you can't take anything from the winner."
Nicky Henderson reckoned Might Bite used too much energy jumping the stiffer fences - although it was the same for all five runners. Reflecting on the run, he said: "Obviously that wasn't right. His work has been fantastic. He's going to be scoped because he was ponderous.
"They have built some big fences for today and he's not the first of mine which has been caught out [River Wylde fell at the last in the graduation chase]. They just got him up in the air too much. Normally he's deadly. But that's not the whole story. Maybe he wasn't as straight as I thought he was and for that you'll have to blame the trainer not the fences."