The Listener maintained his unbeaten record over fences with a brave victory in the Unicoin Homes “Dipper” Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham.
The imposing grey (8-11) was always in the front rank under Andrew Thornton and took the lead from Billyvoddan approaching the second-last fence in the Grade Two contest.
Robert Alner’s seven-year-old then kept on well to beat the strong-finishing Napolitain by three-quarters of a length.
Cashmans make The Listener second-favourite for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase and cut him into 7-1 from 12s. But VC Bet went the other way and pushed him out from 8-1 to 10-1, with Ladbrokes also going 10-1 and William Hill 8-1.
Thornton said: “He’s won ugly, but sometimes you have to do that. He never made a mistake the whole way round, but he didn’t just give me the same feel today.
“But it’s the best race he has run in and he had plenty of weight, so that might have something to do with it.
“It is horrible ground out there too. Tacky and testing and hard work for everybody. He also probably wants three miles rather than this two miles and five furlongs.”
Christian Williams, rider of the runner-up, received a two-day suspension for using his whip with excessive frequency.
Course specialist Fondmort won his first race for more than two years when carrying 11st 12lb to success in the Unicoin Homes Chase under Mick Fitzgerald.
Brought down when going nicely in the Robin Cook Memorial Gold Cup on his previous start, the 100-30 favourite was backed to make amends and did so in style.
But with the low sun forcing officials to leave out no less than six of the fences, Fitzgerald was forced into a change of tactics.
With the final two fences dolled off, it was a run-in of more than half a mile from the last and Fondmort’s rider pushed him clear from the final jump.
His rivals were closing up the final climb to the line but Fondmort had done enough, beating Too Forward by three-quarters of a length, with Made In Japan a further couple of lengths back in third.
“He really is a smashing horse,” said Henderson. “All you need is Cheltenham and two miles and five furlongs and you know he’ll give his best.
“There is another race for him at the trip at the end of the month and then we will come for the Ryanair Chase.
“Mick raised his eyebrows a bit when they decided to miss all those fences out because really it is the thing he does best. He was worried that if there wasn’t something to keep him interested for half a mile we might be in trouble so he decided to fire him out of the fence and kick on – I’d say he got it about right!”
Paul Nicholls’ challenge for a first trainers’ championship suffered mixed fortunes as he enjoyed a double before seeing stable jockey Ruby Walsh give up his remaining rides after escaping serious injury in a crunching fall from Sporazene in the Steel Plate and Sections Hurdle.
In the race itself, The French Furze belied his advancing years to make all.
Nicky Richards’ 12-year-old was sent into an early lead by Brian Harding and opened up a 20-length advantage at one stage.
The 12-1 chance was being reeled in all the way up the run-in by the 7-4 favourite Mighty Man but the line came in time for the Cumbrian raider, who held on to score by three-quarters of a length.
Richards said: “They didn’t go after him as early as they probably should and it was a great ride. The old horse probably deserved it anyway.”
Nicholls had initiated his brace in emphatic style when Denman destroyed his rivals in the Grade One stanjamesuk.com Challow Novices’ Hurdle.
The 5-2 favourite travelled strongly all the way as he disputed the lead under Walsh before stretching clear to beat The Cool Guy by 21 lengths.
Denman is as short as 5-1 to take the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle, but Nicholls warned going conditions would affect running plans.
“He would only run there on proper ground – he’d be the wrong horse to run on quick ground,” he said.
“This race was his target and next year he will go novice chasing. He’s my sort of horse, a big chasing type with lots of scope – he looks the part.”
Nicholls was back in the winner’s enclosure after the following High Sheriff of Gloucestershire’s ’Crime Beat’ National Hunt Novices’ Handicap Hurdle.
But it was only after a 15-minute wait for the result of a stewards’ inquiry that Nicholls knew exactly which horse had been responsible for the victory.
It was Armariver and Christian Williams who were first past the post for the two-mile one-furlong contest, but they were ruled to have hampered stablemate and runner-up Pirate Flagship on the run-in, forcing Walsh to snatch up the reins.
And the stewards reversed the placings, much to the delight of punters who backed the better-fancied stable representative at 7-1.
Having been out of sorts of late, reigning champion trainer Martin Pipe has allowed Nicholls to build up a lead of over £250,000 in the race for this season’s title.
But with the stable showing signs of coming back to form, Joacci came with a well-timed challenge to deny the brave front-running effort of Lord of Illusion by a length and three-quarters in the Cheltenham Racing Limited Handicap Chase.
Attorney General followed up a recent course success to take the three-mile intercasino.co.uk Handicap Hurdle for Jim Old.
While the concluding bumper supplied a double for Fitzgerald, who brought Burnt Oak, the 4-1 favourite, home for Chris Fairhurst.