Rising stars enjoy big race successes
Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls were expected to trade blows across the two main cards, but in the end, it was merely shadow-boxing as two of the brightest up-and-coming talents claimed their latest big-race victories.
First, Kerry Lee, already a major winner on two Saturdays this year, saddled Top Gamble to take the Game Spirit Chase, ahead of the reigning two-mile champion, Dodging Bullets. Half an hour later, Lizzie Kelly, who became the first female jockey to win a British Grade One at Christmas, emerged from the fierce heat of competition in the Betfair Hurdle as an easy winner aboard Agrapart, securing a £90,000 first prize, which was twice the size of her biggest pay-day to date.
In its way, Kelly's win could prove to be a more significant step forward than her success on Tea For Two in the Kauto Star Novice Chase six weeks ago. That victory came aboard a well-fancied 9/4 chance in a seven-runner field, while Agrapart was 16/1 to beat 21 rivals, including Blazer, the hot favourite, from Mullins' stable.
The start can often be as important as the finish in such a competitive race and Kelly was ideally placed in a prominent position from the off. Few of her rivals ever threatened to get seriously involved in the closing stages and Agrapart had already mastered Starchitect when the latter made a bad mistake at the final flight.
"He was brilliant, he did it for me," Kelly said. "Horses were getting tired and he just gallops and responds and fights. I was worried a couple from the back might come and get me on the line, but he kept on galloping. He has an incredible stride and as the jockey, you don't feel you are going any faster, he just takes a shorter time to get there.
"I think I'm better at them [the big occasions]. I work better under pressure and respond better to bigger days when there's more pressure on. I soak up the atmosphere a bit more and I'm a bit more of a warrior about it."
Agrapart is still a novice and finished third in a Grade One behind Mullins' Yorkhill last time out, but is not entered at Cheltenham as Nick Williams, his trainer, feels that the track and expected faster going would not suit him.
Lee's first season with a licence after taking over from her father, Richard, is going every bit as well as Kelly's career in the saddle and she is now just outside the top 20 in the trainers' championship after Top Gamble's success in the card's two-mile Grade Two. Dodging Bullets, last season's Queen Mother Champion Chase winner, had plenty in hand of the field on official ratings, but could not close the gap on Top Gamble as he galloped on strongly from three out.
"Aintree might well suit him or Punchestown might be his course because he's more likely to get soft ground there," Lee said. "I wouldn't be nailed on to the Ryanair [at Cheltenham, for which Top Gamble is a 25/1 chance] because I'm not mad about taking on Mr Mullins. It's different for me, I've only got one or two flagship horses like this and I've got to be careful where I send them."
Houblon Des Obeaux was an equally emphatic winner of the Grade Two Denman Chase though his trainer, Venetia Williams, is concerned that he will now go up in the ratings before the publication of the Grand National weights on Tuesday. He is generally 33/1 from 50/1 for the big race at Aintree in April.
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