Deputy Sam is Fergie's friend

Deputy Sam is Fergie's friend

Sam Thomas stepped off the substitutes’ bench to score aboard Alex Ferguson’s What A Friend in the rescheduled Lexus Chase at Leopardstown yesterday.

The Manchester United manager was at the Dublin track 24 hours earlier to see his Hennessy runner-up perform under Barry Geraghty, but the race was abandoned because of thick fog.

With Geraghty required at Newbury, Thomas climbed back aboard the Paul Nicholls-trained runner after the partnership performed with great credit behind Denman at Newbury last month.

As Joncol and Notre Pere traded blows at the head of the field for the lion’s share of the three-mile test, What A Friend cruised around under Thomas and began to take closer order leaving the back stretch.

Joncol had won the battle for the lead heading to the final fence, but Thomas was in his slipstream and grabbed the initiative 100 yards from the finish in a nip-and-tuck climax.

Nicky Richards’ Money Trix (14-1) was the surprise package and despite coming under pressure a long way out, he motored where it mattered and got within a half a length of What A Friend, relegating Joncol into third.

The win was a huge fillip for Thomas, who lost his position as Nicholls’ second jockey late last season.

He said: “I was disappointed not to be riding the horse in the first place but I got the opportunity today.

“I need to thank Tom George’s owner Philip Nelson for letting me get off his horse to come over here.

“Barry Geraghty was due to ride him and has a lot of experience around here.

“Everything happens for a reason and the gods must have been looking down on me.

“Thank goodness for the fog!”

Nicholls, who saddled Denman to success in the 2007 Lexus Chase, added: “I am really chuffed for Sam.

“It all worked out really well and Sam rode him beautifully, as he is not an easy ride.”

What A Friend is now a general 20-1 shot for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but Nicholls is keen on swerving the race this year.

The Ditcheat handler added: “He’ll definitely have an entry but I’m not sure I’d want to run him in the Gold Cup this year against Denman and Kauto.

“I’ll discuss it with Ged (Mason) and Sir Alex but he has an enormous amount of ground to make up.

“I’d love to go to Aintree and Punchestown with him so those are my targets, the Irish Hennessy is another option but we might keep him fresh for the spring.”

What A Friend is likely to face a rematch with Joncol and Money Trix if he runs in the Irish Hennessy in early February.

Notre Pere weakened back into fourth, with Voy Por Ustedes sixth and runaway RSA Chase winner Cooldine, the 100-30 favourite, pulled up by Paul Townend.

Cooldine was having his first run of the season and was later found to be suffering from ill health.

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