Thyme Hill laid a marker down for the new season when holding off Paisley Park in the Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.
Trained by Philip Hobbs, Thyme Hill was a Grade One winner as a novice last term and was a slightly unlucky loser when meeting trouble in running in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham in March.
None of the 10 contenders at Newbury looked keen to make the running, with the field hanging back as the tapes went up.
Eventually Honest Vic was ridden into an early lead and he held the advantage until Vision Des Flos went from last to first under Robbie Power as the field embarked on the second circuit.
When he was reeled in as they entered the straight, there were plenty in with chances as Stayers’ Hurdle winner Lisnagar Oscar, McFabulous, Summerville Boy and the first two home were all still travelling well.
But they dropped away one by one, with McFabulous the last off the bridle but appearing to not quite get home as Thyme Hill and Paisley Park fought out a thrilling finish.
Richard Johnson pushed Thyme Hill (7-2) a length and a half clear of Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park at line, with the runner-up conceding 3lb and putting his Cheltenham disappointment behind him with a fine effort.
Thyme Hill is now as low as 6-1 with Betfair for the Stayer’s Hurdle, with Paisley Park a 5-1 chance.
Hobbs said: “They were making a lot about the race before, but we are obviously delighted with him. He was a bit geed up beforehand and I was a bit concerned about that as he is normally on his toes, but not too much. In the race he settled and jumped well. I was very happy with him.
“I would very much hope he could progress as that is only his fifth hurdle race and he is only six. There is still room for improvement. He would have been pretty fit today, but that run would put him right as well.
“He is not the hardest to get fit, but at the same time he must come on for the run a bit. He schooled over fences when the season finished and he schooled particularly well, but you just have to think he was hopefully going to be good enough to run in this department.
“If he flopped today, it would have been a disaster as it would have been too late to go novice chasing, but thankfully we were OK.
“I was (confident three miles would be his trip) after Cheltenham, as he stayed on very well in the Albert Bartlett. He was unlucky and got squeezed out a bit, so he was unfortunate there.
“The Long Walk is a strong possibility and the Cleeve is a possibility as well. I would have thought it is likely he would only have one run before Cheltenham.
“He is not the sort of horse that holds condition well, but he has got better as he has got older, so hopefully we can have a busier season, but there aren’t that many options for him. There is the Long Walk, Cleeve, Cheltenham and then hopefully he can go to Aintree and Punchestown afterwards.
“He is definitely the best horse I’ve had in this division as I’ve never had a horse that was even likely for the Stayers’ Hurdle.”
Paisley Park was found to be suffering a heart problem following his Festival defeat in March, but jockey Aidan Coleman was thrilled with his performance on his return to action.
He said: “Fair play to the winner, as he is the new kid on the block. But from where we left off from Cheltenham in March, we have come an awful long way, bearing in mind he couldn’t raise a gallop for obvious reasons and we all know why.
“He has gone around today, travelled with loads of enthusiasm and jumped well. It turned into a sprint, but it was the same for all of them, so we are not making any excuses on that front.
“It was fantastic to see him gallop all the way to the line and just take a massive step forward from his last run. Without winning, I couldn’t be happier.”