Definitly Red landed the Cotswold Chase on Saturday, leaving trainer Brian Ellison dreaming of Gold Cup glory.
Revelling in testing conditions, the nine-year-old stormed up the famous hill for an eight-length victory. Harry Fry’s young chaser American had travelled powerfully throughout and heading downhill looked to be going best of all. Bristol De Mai and Definitly Red challenged from three-out, but by the second-last Ellison’s charge had taken command. American rallied as Bristol De Mai began to paddle, but there was no catching the winner. The Last Samuri closed on the front three as the line approached, though at no point looked like landing a serious blow.
“That was brilliant,” said Ellison after the victory. “He's class, isn't he? Danny gave him a great ride, he gets on great with him. He’s probably one of the best jockeys riding. He had to use his head down the back.”
The trainer was winning at the course for the first time in 16 years and added: “I thought the other horse (American) was going better, but Danny took a pull to lie a couple of lengths off him and when he gave him a kick in the belly he took off. He's just got better every year and the plan this year was to keep him fresh. Today would tell us if we went for the Gold Cup, so we'll go now.”
Cook can now look forward to a first ride in the festival showpiece. He said of the winner: “He stayed on really well. He got a bit lonely in front and had a good look. This horse is going from strength to strength, he gave me a nice feel today.”
On an emotional day at Prestbury Park, the jockey added: “I'd like to dedicate that to my grandad, who is not very well, we don't know how much longer he's got, he said he'd love to see me ride a winner at Cheltenham and he has.”
Bristol De Mai failed to shine and is simply not the same horse away from Haydock. Nigel Twiston-Davies said: “I'm disappointed, what else can I say? Something might come of it.”
Anthony Bromley is the racing manager for BDM’s owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. He said of the disappointing performance: “We've asked him a few questions and we've found them out. We came here hopeful, but it doesn't look like we've got a Gold Cup horse on that run. He will get an entry to the Grand National on Tuesday, and it might be the National more than the Gold Cup.”
Harry Fry’s American ran a cracker, and the trainer was full of praise, saying: “It was a huge run, I'm absolutely delighted. I was thinking 'here we go again' (when started slowly) but he warmed to the task and relished the conditions. He jumped his way to the front and for a long way I thought he was going to do it. He didn't have a proper run in the Ladbrokes Trophy and maybe that cost us. It was a huge run. He's not in the Gold Cup, but if conditions come up like that we might have to think about supplementing him.”
In my piece on Friday, I’d plumped for The Last Samuri, but Kim Bailey’s gutsy stayer was never going quick enough to land a serious blow. He stayed on well to finish a close fourth and his trainer seemed happy enough, saying: “He’s never been to Cheltenham before, and better ground would have suited him today. He’s run a proper Grand National trial and all he was doing was staying at the end. He’ll go straight from here to Aintree and fingers crossed he’ll have a great chance.”
The Grade Two Cleeve Hurdle shared main billing and much of the lead-up centred on the tragic death of Richard Woollacott. The young trainer succumbed to mental health issues earlier in the week and Cheltenham Racecourse paid tribute to him with a minute’s silence during the meeting. Beer Goggles had given him his greatest day on the track when taking the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in December. He was fancied to go close again but having set the fractions for much of the contest, faded turning for home before finishing fifth.
It was left to Agrapart and Wholestone to battle-out the finish, with the latter travelling powerfully approaching the last. However, when push came to shove it was Lizzie Kelly’s mount that found more for pressure to win by three-lengths. It looked as though Wholestone failed to see-out the three-mile trip, and if mine, I’d be thinking of a crack at the Coral Cup in March rather than the Stayers’. Agrapart may miss the festival, as testing ground is key to his chances. His trainer Nick Williams said: “We haven't even made an entry for March, the ground is so important. There's a 90 per cent chance the ground won't be soft enough, even soft isn't soft enough for him so he's quite hard to place.”
A thrilled and hugely emotional Lizzie Kelly said of the winner: “This horse has helped shape my career, the owners have been so good to me. I'm delighted their faith in me has paid off. They started using me when I was a 10lb claimer. I love riding this horse, as he tries so hard. He travelled so well, I got to the front too soon. Once this horse gets his head in front he doesn't like being beaten.”
Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls were responsible for other notable performances on the card. Apple’s Shakira landed the Triumph Hurdle Trial, though had to work hard to maintain her perfect record. She found plenty up the stamina sapping hill in ground that was plenty testing enough for the lightly framed filly. She remains favourite for a hot renewal in March.
Seven Barrows was also responsible for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle victor Santini. He battled bravely in conditions that clearly didn’t suit, to get up very late and deny the Tom George-trained Black Op. The pair pulled miles clear of a decent field and the winner is now around 10s for both the Ballymore and the Albert Bartlett in March. He’s a stunning individual who should progress into a smashing chaser.
It also proved to be another great day for young Bryony Frost. She rode the Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon to a stunning success in a competitive looking Grade Three handicap chase. From the second-last to the line the fast improving six-year-old put 17-lengths between himself and the field. Shantou Flyer came off second best for another outstanding claimer in James Bowen. The pair of young jockeys are making quite a name for themselves.
As for the winning horse, he’s likely to head for the Ryanair at The Festival. Should conditions be in his favour (best in testing ground) he’d be a fair each-way proposition.