Sam Thomas was overjoyed as Before Midnight gave him the biggest win of his training career to date in the 888Sport Handicap Chase at Cheltenham.
Thomas, a fine jockey who won the Gold Cup on Denman in 2008, had made what could be only be described as a steady start to his training career, but there are definite signs things are picking up.
A couple of wins in Listed bumpers last season for Good Risk At All suggested he would have a nice horse to go to war with and Before Midnight (2-1 favourite) can now be added to the list.
The former Nicky Henderson inmate has thrived since dropping to two miles and never missed a beat under Sam Twiston-Davies, who was completing a double following the success of I Like To Move It.
“That was a very taking performance and the way he jumps was part of the reason we dropped to two miles,” said Thomas.
“It paid off at Chepstow (in April) and we thought he had a little bit up his sleeve, so this has been the target since May really. For the money this is a race which sometimes doesn’t have the biggest field.
“It’s a bit surreal. I’ve been working all morning and then drove here so I haven’t had time to get nervous. We had a winner here in November when there was no crowd and we were on the way home 10 minutes later, so to have a crowd here is very special.
“I was never an assistant to anyone so I probably took a bit of time to learn, making mistakes along the way. I’ve now got good horses, great facilities and a fantastic team. Although we’re only small, everyone digs in and days like today make it worthwhile.
“It’s hard when things aren’t going well and you don’t know what to put it down to, but thankfully we had a really good season last season and we can look back on that and see what worked.”
With the biggest crowd in attendance since the 2020 Festival, the 888Sport What’s Your Thinking Handicap Chase served up a finish fit for March – with a familiar outcome in an Irish winner.
Gordon Elliott, who secured his first winner at Cheltenham since his return from suspension 24 hours earlier, gave notice – if any were needed – that he has slipped straight back into the old routine as Definite Plan stayed on strongly.
The Hollow Ginge, who had been well backed, made a bold bid for home but was beginning to tire up the famous hill as Jordan Gainford produced Definite Plan (9-2), second on all three previous outings in beginners’ chases in Ireland, to win by a head.
Cloth Cap, favourite for last season’s Grand National for the late Trevor Hemmings, ran well for a long way under top weight before fading into fourth.
“I was hoping he’d get into the amateur riders’ race for Jamie Codd but the handicapper – I suppose rightly so – wouldn’t let him into it (it was a 0-125 handicap and he is rated 131),” said Elliott.
“It just shows how competitive racing in Ireland is, he’s been second three times in beginners’ chases. Every day in Ireland you take on world class trainers and jockeys, it’s so competitive, here you can duck and dive a bit more. There’s always hope (for Britain against the Irish). In this game you never know what is around the corner, as I rightly know.
“Jordan gave him a wonderful ride and there’s only one winning post.
“He might come back for the amateur riders’ race in November, but he wouldn’t want heavy ground.”
Tom Scudamore said of Cloth Cap: “He ran a lovely race. Obviously he had a lot of weight but he’s run really well, all the way to the line. He just couldn’t match the pace of the first three but he felt the same as ever and gave me a great ride. The talk was we’ll do the same as last year (Ladbrokes Trophy).”
There were jubilant scenes as Victoria Malzard rode her first winner in Britain when making all the running on Kansas City Chief (20-1) in the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle.
Her mother Alyson is a champion trainer in Jersey, for whom most of her experience has come.
“My mum has been champion trainer 15 times in Jersey and I’ve had three winners for her, but this is something else,” said Malzard.
Samba Dancer (100-30) clearly enjoys the Gloucestershire air and secured his third win since joining Fergal O’Brien in the NHS Vaccinating Heroes Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.
“Paddy Brennan won on him over two and a half miles at Uttoxeter, said we could drop in trip and he won over two-two last time, after which he told us to come straight for this race,” said O’Brien.
O’Brien made it a double in the closing Royal Gloucestershire Hussars Open National Hunt Flat Race as Bonttay (22-1) scored in the hands of Connor Brace.