Revellers who braved the inevitable New Year hangovers to be at Cheltenham on Saturday suffered something of an anti-climax as rising star Fundamentalist fluffed his lines badly in the Unicoin Homes “Dipper” Novices’ Chase.
Sent off the 4-7 market leader to further his Festival claims – for which he has been touted for anything from the Arkle Chase to the Gold Cup – the seven-year-old never jumped with any fluency and eventually unseated Carl Llewellyn at the 10th fence.
The race eventually went to the Paul Nicholls-trained My Will, who had four lengths to spare over El Vaquero, the only other finisher.
Nigel Twiston-Davies, the trainer of the favourite, was initially at a loss to explain the lacklustre showing of Fundamentalist but was a lot wiser yesterday.
“He is a bit lame and he has got a sore shin, which is the reason that he did not jump very well,” said the Naunton handler. “We will swim him for a week now, and he will be back on song before long.”
Plans for the 4-1 winner are a little clearer, although he is unlikely to reoppose Fundamentalist should he run in the Arkle.
“He’ll have a break now and we’ll look for something at Cheltenham, but it won’t be the Arkle as he wants further than two miles,” Nicholls said.
“Two miles just wasn’t enough for him when we were beaten here by Fundamentalist earlier in the season and anyway he coughed after that, so we just put a line through the run and decided not to be afraid of taking him on again.”
Fundamentalist was pushed out to 6-1 in the betting for the Arkle by Coral, totesport and William Hill, but realistically could still end up in any one of half a dozen races at the Festival.
My Will was the middle leg of a 329-1 treble for Nicholls and Walsh, who opened their account when Cornish Sett obliged at 5-1 in the High Sheriff Of Gloucestershire’s ‘Crime Beat’ ‘NH’ Novices’ Handicap Hurdle.
Their third strike came in the most valuable contest on the card, the Unicoin Homes Chase, when enigmatic character Le Duc returned to form.
After My Will, it was Walsh’s second victory of the day in the colours of Andy Stewart – who had reportedly said last week that he might not be using the rider’s services after he rejected his King George VI Chase hopeful Le Roi Miguel in order to ride stablemate Azertyuiop.
Stewart denied any suggestions of a rift and the hug between the pair after Walsh dismounted from Le Duc hinted that any ill-feeling had been forgotten.
“You don’t want to believe everything you read in the press,” said Stewart. “It wasn’t helpful that he changed his mind about riding for me when he said he would, but in the grand scheme of things, it hardly seems that important.”
If ever the value of having Walsh onside was illustrated, it came here as Le Duc was given a typically patient ride, only moving into contention three fences from home.
With several horses blundering their chances away, it was left to two who have had their share of jumping problems in the past to fight out the finish, with Redemption going on approaching the penultimate obstacle chased by Le Duc.
They took off together at the last, but it was Le Duc who jumped the better and the 10-1 chance was driven clear to score by four lengths, with another two and a half back to Kandjar D’Allier.
“A great start to the New Year,” said Nicholls.
“When he gets his conditions and he puts it all in he is a very decent horse.
“We always thought he might be potentially well handicapped if he could get his act together, and Ruby has given him a terrific ride.”
However, it was certainly not the best of starts to 2005 for champion jockey Tony McCoy, who was hit with a seven-day ban after being found guilty of careless riding aboard third-placed Gotno Destination in the closing bumper.
His ban will take in January 12 to 15 and January 17 to 19, ruling him out of big weekend cards at Kempton Park and Warwick.
He has no plans to appeal and is never down for long – he bounced back with a short-priced double at Plumpton yesterday.
Westender, meanwhile, won his first race for more than three years as he showed plenty of guts to take the Steel Plate And Sections Hurdle on the Cheltenham card.
One of jumps racing’s more colourful characters, Westender can be relied upon to run his race in the very best company but finds it hard to get his head in front.
However, sent to the front from the start by Timmy Murphy, the nine-year-old jumped better than usual and stayed on strongly to hold off his challengers, with first Monkerhostin, and then Big Moment being forced to give best.
At the line, the 7-4 winner had nine lengths to spare over Big Moment.
“He’s a lovely character and a great horse to have in the yard,” said trainer Martin Pipe. “He’s got a nice box with a good view because he likes to see what’s going on around the place.
“He’s a hard horse to place because of his rating, but we’ll probably come back here for the Cleeve Hurdle at the end of the month.”