Imperial Alcazar could have his sights raised to Grade One company after opening his account for the season in the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle at Warwick.
Making just his second start of the campaign, the Fergal O’Brien-trained seven-year-old, who holds an entry in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, took a giant step forwards in running out a convincing winner.
Steering clear of the late drama, which saw Flemcara, Espion and Ardlethen all come down at the last, the 5-1 victor galloped on relentlessly to score by two and a quarter lengths.
O’Brien said: “We’ve been talking the horse up to the owners for a long time. He has not had many runs and we kept him in bumpers for a long time. It is only his second run of the season and we have been very patient, but they have been rewarded today.
“We think he is a very nice horse and hopefully he will keep progressing.”
The Ravenswell Farm handler will let the dust settle before deciding which route to take with Imperial Alcazar, who has both the Stayers’ Hurdle and Pertemps Final as options at the Festival.
He added: “Definitely we would (treat him as a Stayers’ Hurdle type). We will have a look nearer the time who goes where. Whether things change with Covid as to who comes over from Ireland, so that is why we put him in the Stayers’. It’s a lovely problem to have.”
Although Flemcara escaped injury following the incident at the final flight, there was a sad postscript to the race, which caused around a five-minute delay to the concluding bumper, as both Ardlethen and Espion suffered fatal injuries.
Clerk of the course Jane Hedley said: “Sadly we have lost both Espion and Ardlethen. They had fatal injuries. We gave them every chance, but we had no option in the end and they have been humanely euthanized. Flemcara galloped off which was a good sign.
“Everything was in control behind the screens which allowed us to carry on, which we did. The veterinary teams did their very best as ever, but unfortunately we couldn’t save them. The connections were there and were very upset, but they were philosophical.”
Gold Bullion made a winning debut in the delayed bumper to complete doubles for trainer Paul Nicholls, jockey Harry Cobden and owner Malcolm Denmark.
Having secured Grade Two glory with Next Destination in the Hampton Novices’ Chase, the trio combined again with the five-year-old, who ran out a clear-cut four-and-a-half-length winner as the even-money favourite.
Assistant trainer Harry Derham said: “That was no surprise as he has been lovely the whole way through. He is a gorgeous horse that is so relaxed.
“He was green coming past the stands, that’s why Harry didn’t want to go too soon, but when he gave him a reminder he took off. He will be a serious novice hurdler over two and half miles.”
Elsewhere on the card, Sky Pirate opened the door to bigger and better targets after continuing his progression over fences with victory in the Edward Courage Cup.
The Jonjo O’Neill-trained eight-year-old defied an 11lb hike in the weights following victory at Cheltenham to make it two wins from as many starts since being dropped back to two miles.
Moving past long-time leader Generous Day approaching the second-last, the 13-8 favourite pulled out plenty to defeat Amoola Gold by two and a quarter lengths in the hands of Jonjo O’Neill junior.
The winning rider said: “He is a bit of an enigma, as he has never shown at home that he wants two miles.
“But we had been meaning to try it and it worked out well at Cheltenham and it has worked out well again today. He is an improver at this trip.
“I think people have been getting him slightly wrong as I’m just not sure he gets the two and a half we were aiming him at, but I think he stays two miles strongly.”
Following the race Sky Pirate was cut from 7-1 into 6-1 favourite for the Grand Annual at the Cheltenham Festival by Paddy Power – a race which O’Neill junior believes could be a suitable aim.
He added: “He would (be a horse for a Grand Annual). He has won off 145 and won quite nicely. He is still a novice so we would have to have a look, but he will be entered up in everything I’d imagine.”
Will Sting (7-2) made the most of a drop back to two miles when giving weight all round to claim the Pertemps Network Novices’ Handicap Hurdle by nine and a half lengths.
Jockey Aidan Coleman said of the Lucy Wadham-trained winner: “The drop back in trip helped him. They went quite quick on that ground and they probably stopped a bit in front.
“He’S a nice-moving horse. I’d not sat on him before, but that ground didn’t seem an issue even though it was different to what he won on around Huntingdon.”