Paul Nicholls, who created racing history at the last Wincanton meeting by sending out six winners, continued the good work with a short-priced treble at his local track courtesy of Gungadu, Cerium and Kicks For Free.
Though entitled to be disappointed with the way things worked out for Royal Auclair in the big chase on the card, the trainer can look forward with relish to sending his bumper winner Kicks For Free for the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham, for which Coral cut the gelding to 6-1.
The five-year-old had impressed on his debut in a similar event here a month previously and this effort was every bit as good as rider Liam Heard arrived with his hands full and barely let out an inch of reign as the five-year-old eased to a length success over Stripe Me Blue.
Nicholls said: “I ran Cornish Rebel in it (Champion Bumper), but he didn’t have the pace of this fellow, although I wouldn’t discount Pepporoni Pete, who runs at Newbury next weekend and is not far behind this one.
“He really hasn’t done a tap today and the idea was to take him to Cheltenham and that will be his lot. He’s some horse to go novice hurdling with next year.”
Cerium staked his claim for the Arkle Trophy, for which he was left at 20-1 by Coral and at 14-1 by William Hill, with a length and a half success over stablemate Hors La Loi III in the Dick Reynolds Novices’ Handicap Chase.
The 10-11 favourite looked set for an easy success early in the straight, but after diving at the third-last fence he idled under Paddy Brennan as the veteran Hors La Loi III stayed on strongly up the run-in.
Nicholls’ initial reaction was to equip Cerium with blinkers in the Arkle, although after consulting Brennan that is now an option only.
He said: “I felt he was cruising but that he didn’t do a tap in front. But when I mentioned the blinkers idea to Paddy he said no and I’d be disappointed if he didn’t get a lead in a race as competitive as the Arkle.
“He’s a better horse on better ground and I’m not sure he wants it soft.”
The trainer was delighted with Hors La Loi III, whose owner Paul Green said: “Paul has done a lot of dressage with him and brought him back from being a virtual cripple. The way he finished today it looks as if he wants further.”
Nicholls confirmed that view by nominating the Jewson Novices’ Handicap Chase over two miles four and a half furlongs as the Festival objective of the 11-year-old.
The Ditcheat handler’s treble was initiated by Gungadu, who made all to beat Hill Forts Timmy by 17 lengths in the HMG Paints “National Hunt” Novices’ Hurdle.
The winner is another embryonic chaser and although entered for the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle, is more likely to run in the three-mile novice event at the Festival.
Nicholls said: “He’s getting more experienced and will make a nice staying chaser next year. The obvious race for him is the three-miler and he’d be better with some cut in the ground.”
The day began with a shock defeat for 2-11 chance Ben’s Turn, who failed to cope with Hollywood at the end of the John Smith’s/EBF Mares’ Only “National Hunt” Novices’ Hurdle.
In the colours of Sir Rembrandt, Hollywood edged left on the run-in, taking the ground of the second as she prevailed by a length.
The stewards found her rider Andrew Thornton guilty of careless riding, for which they suspended him for two days on February 13 and 14.
Philips Hobbs and Nigel Twiston-Davies received consolation for the disappointments of One Knight and Ollie Magern when respectively landing the Byotrol Handicap Hurdle and the CPM Group Ltd Handicap Chase with Noble Request and Florida Dream.
The first hunter chase of the season went to Red Brook Lad, who under Charlotte Tizzard proved two lengths too strong on No Retreat, providing a timely boost for trainer Charlie Fox who has not been well.