The Cheltenham Festival may be on the lips of every racing fan at present, but jockey Ciaran Gethings and trainer Stuart Edmunds are looking a little further ahead to Aintree’s Grand National meeting, after Hometown Boy took the Close Brothers Asset Finance Handicap Hurdle at Kempton with plenty to spare.
Making his seasonal debut after 350 days on the sidelines, the six-year-old was always up with the pace and made stealthy progress turning in before being asked to inject the pace with half a mile to run.
His hurdling was efficient and a good leap at the last two saw the 11-1 shot power clear of Ecco to draw three and a quarter lengths clear, with 11-4 favourite Gunsight Ridge struggling to get involved, a similar distance back in third.
Connections have had to be patient with Hometown Boy, who broke his duck over hurdles at Market Rasen in December 2019, and while Gethings was concerned about the lack of a run, his fears were for nought.
Gethings said: “We have always liked him from the word go. He hadn’t run for 11 months and while we thought he might not lack fitness, he might run a bit fresh and a bit keen which he can be.
“Looking back on his form, we really fancied him. Stuart’s horse are a little bit in and out this season and it is hard to get a gauge on them, but he felt great today and he did it well.
“He wasn’t beaten far by Espoir De Romay at Warwick (in November 2019) so the form is there.
“He was ready to run at the Chepstow meeting at the start of the year, but it was just too quick for him. He then had a little setback and he is very hard on himself. But he is back on track and will make a lovely chaser.”
He added: “He has a very big stride for not a big horse and jumps fantastic. I think stepping up to three miles will suit him as well. He has a couple of options at Aintree and will go for either a two-and-a-half-miler on the first day, or the three-miler on Grand National Day.
“Aintree will be right up his street.”
Paul Nicholls claimed a double on the card after the victory of Tamaroc Du Mathan in the Pendil Novices’ Chase, when My Way (4-1 joint-favourite) produced a game front-running display to take the Close Brothers Motor Finance Handicap Chase in the hands of Harry Cobden.
The seven-year-old had landed a maiden hurdle at Stratford in October, but had been luckless in 12 previous starts over fences.
Yet the fitting of first-time blinkers appeared to galvanise Nicholls’ inmate, who had previously been beaten over 14 lengths at Chepstow, and he led his nine rivals a merry dance, despite tiring near the line, as Awake At Midnight closed to within two and a quarter lengths under Richard Johnson.
Nicholls felt a sense of relief afterwards, and said: “He has been a long time winning a chase. He has threatened to, but I thought the fitting of blinkers might concentrate his mind today.
“A flat track over two and a half miles was all right for him today. If we had not won with him today, we would really have been in trouble. Thirteenth time lucky, I guess!
“He is actually a novice over fences, so you could perhaps run him in novice handicap later on, but my immediate plan was to put him in at Cheltenham – which, with his rating, he is bound to get balloted out – and then come here to Kempton on the Saturday for the consolation chase over two-mile-five.
“I only entered him at Cheltenham to get balloted out and then come here, so that would be a good plan. He would not want to be running at Cheltenham in his own right.”