With plans to run in Kempton’s Grade One St Stephen’s Day showpiece scrapped following the six-year-old’s mid-race tumble in the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon last month, the Blandford handler watched on with delight as his ‘plan B’ unfolded to great effect.
Cole Harden, on his first Cheltenham start since lifting the World Hurdle in March, adopted his customary front-running role in the Grade Two contest, before being passed by the eventual winner over three out into an advantage he was not to surrender.
With all those behind him hard at work the 10-1 chance bounded on to the last, which he winged like the rest of the hurdles put in front of him in the two-and-half-mile prize, and galloped away for an 11-length success from Lil Rockefeller.
Cole Harden was a further nine lengths back in third as Walford’s lengthy cold spell ended with a first winner in 241 days, although he had only had 33 runners in that time.
While not challenging Thistlecrack at the head of the market for the World Hurdle bookmakers reacted accordingly, with Paddy Power introducing Camping Ground at 10-1 for the Grade One prize and William Hill making him 14-1 for the same race.
Walford said: “We’ve always thought he was very good and he’s never disappointed us.
“He was fourth in the Imperial Cup with top weight and apart from last time, which was a bit of a blip, he’s done nothing wrong.
“He was entered for the King George and if things had gone to plan at Huntingdon he would have gone there. We schooled him after the Peterborough Chase, though, and he had slightly lost confidence and that’s why we came here.
“We consider him a chaser, but we’ll probably stay over hurdles this year. If he’s in good form we’ll probably run him in the Cleeve Hurdle and then go for the World Hurdle, as long as he’s all right.”
Trainer Neil King was thrilled with the performance of the 20-1 runner-up Lil Rockerfeller and hinted a return to the track at the end of the month could be on the agenda.
He said: “He’s run a terrific race and I’m over the moon with him. He’ll definitely have an entry in the World Hurdle and where he goes between now and then, I’m not sure, but we might come back here for the Cleeve.”
Cole Harden’s trainer Warren Greatrex was not too despondent and confirmed his stable star will now head straight to the Festival to defend his crown.
“He hated the ground, but he jumped better than ever today and was still there turning for home,” said Greatrex.
“I’ve got 10 weeks to get him right and I’ll make sure he’s better than last season. It’s all about the World Hurdle at the end of the day.”
Meanwhile, Seeyouatmidnight produced a brilliant front-running display to claim top honours in the BetBright #realfansonly Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham.
Sandy Thomson’s northern raider was a beaten favourite on his chasing debut at Carlisle in November, but put that right at Kelso a month a later to earn himself a step up to Grade Two level in a race better known as the ‘Dipper’.
Brian Hughes sent the 7-2 winner straight to the lead from the outset and some prodigious leaps kept up the momentum.
While his rivals one by one started to come under pressure and fell away, Seeyouatmidnight was still trapping along running down the hill, with only Blaklion able to go with him rounding the home turn.
For a moment Blaklion looked like making a real race of it, but a quick jump at the final fence kept Thomson’s charge in command and he galloped all the way to the line to score by three and a quarter lengths.
Hughes said: “It was a bold shout by Sandy coming here, but he loves that ground.
“He does go on better ground — he ran a good race in the World Hurdle here. He’s a fair horse.”
Paddy Power trimmed Seeyouatmidnight to 14-1 from 20-1 for the RSA Chase back at Prestbury Park in March.
Thomson said: “We’re so lucky to have him. He’s an absolute star.”
Village Vic produced another scintillating round of jumping from the front at Cheltenham to secure the BetBright Best For Festival Betting Handicap Chase.
The Philip Hobbs-trained nine-year-old has suffered his fair share of problems in recent seasons, but proved when bounding clear in December’s Caspian Caviar Gold Cup he is in the form of his life.
Sent off the 7-2 favourite to defy an 8lb higher mark in another fiercely competitive heat at Prestbury Park, Village Vic was soon bowling along merrily at the head of affairs and saw off his rivals one by one under Richard Johnson on his way to another impressive victory.
Tenor Nivernais came home well to fill the runner-up spot, beaten three lengths, just ahead of Top Gamble in third.
Johnson said: “He jumped well, apart from the second, but the ground is very testing. Even for horses that handle soft ground it’s hard work.
“Because he’s quite free-going, when it’s heavy you’re always worried you’re doing a bit too much, but he’s so enthusiastic and jumps so well. He enjoys it so we try to let him get on with it.
“I think one of the handicaps (at the Festival) will be what he’ll be aimed at. Two-and-a-half (miles) looks the ideal trip for him.”