Gary Moore just bested Nicky Henderson as Verasi landed the first running of the new-look intercasino.co.uk Lanzarote Handicap Hurdle at Kempton.
The Brighton-based trainer sent out both the winner and fourth-placed Nation State, who were split by Henderson’s Royals Darling and Afrad in a thrilling finish for the valuable race, which was raised five furlongs in distance this year.
The blinkered Verasi, a 20-1 shot, had not quickened many pulses in five runs this season, but relished the unusually testing conditions at the Sunbury circuit and was always prominent under Eamon Dehdashti.
Leading two flights from home, he was all out to repel the renewed challenge of Royals Darling by a length.
Racing Demon was the well-backed 2-1 favourite and was returning to the smaller obstacles for more racing experience.
Unfortunately, the Henrietta Knight-trained King George VI Chase third crashed out with four to jump, but was reported sound afterwards.
Moore, who won the race twice in its old guise, said: “Both mine are half-decent, but this one has acted better on the soft ground.
“I almost had kittens when I saw Eamon so handy, but he has had a great run around the inside.
“I got to the bottom of him earlier in the season by running him too quick.
“His aim now would be the Coral Cup, which he came fifth in last year.”
Conditional rider Dehdashti has always been based with Moore, who added: “This would easily be the biggest win of his career, and he’s a hard-working, loyal lad.”
It was also a memorable afternoon for Steve Gollings and owner John Webb as they bagged a welcome double.
It was initiated by last year’s Order Of Merit winner Royal Shakespeare (6-4 joint-favourite), who got off the mark over fences at the fourth attempt in the intercasino.co.uk Novices’ Chase.
He appeared the most unlikely of the market principals to land the spoils with three to jump as Richard Johnson began to shovel on the coal.
But suddenly class told and the eight-year-old quickened into the lead and despite jumping through the second-last, he opened up a 10-length margin at the post over fellow market leader Trouble At Bay.
Webb said: “He doesn’t seem to get the credit he deserves and he’s run well each time over fences.
“This ground doesn’t suit him, but perhaps he’ll come good at Aintree as he doesn’t like the hill at Cheltenham.”
Less expected was 40-1 shot Romany Prince upsetting the odds-on favourite Princelet in the intercasino.co.uk Handicap Hurdle.
Romany Prince had made much of the running under Andrew Glassonbury, although Tony McCoy appeared to be pulling double over his rival.
The contest was turned on its head at the last, however, and some heavy in-running punters will have cursed as Princelet went through the flight and could not regain momentum as he succumbed by a neck.
Gollings’ wife Jayne reported: “We felt the trip was too short, the ground too soft and the yard is under a cloud, but somehow we’ve got a double!”
Glassonbury’s joy was somewhat dampened by a two-day ban (January 24 and 25) for overuse of the whip.
On a day where every race was sponsored by intercasino.co.uk, Pouvoir added to Alan King’s bounty of promising youngsters by running out a ready winner of the opening two-mile juvenile event.
Wayne Hutchinson had to nudge the 7-4 shot along at some stages during the back straight, but he responded and shrugged off market rival Prince Ary to finish 14 lengths clear at the line.
King’s assistant Noel Williams said: “He shows stacks at home and had hit the crossbar twice before, although last time at Sandown it may have come a bit quick.
“He’s in the Triumph Hurdle, but that’s up to Alan, he might be more of an Aintree horse.”
One-time smart bumper performer Secret Ploy (4-1) advertised his return to the fold with a tenacious display in the extended three-mile novices’ hurdle.
Andrew Tinkler was the first to get busy in the saddle well over a mile from home as he pushed the seven-year-old in front on just his second outing after a long absence.
Barbers Shop travelled smoothly throughout but could never quite overhaul Secret Ploy and conceded by half a length.
Hugo Palmer, assistant to winning trainer Hughie Morrison, said: “He was off a long time, about 21 months with leg problems, and it’s thrilling to have him back winning. Andrew said he floated over the all-weather patches and definitely wants better ground than this.”
A gruelling test for the novices’ handicap chase went to 50-1 shot Lady Of Scarvagh, who beat Bengo by 18 lengths for Michael Scudamore and Neil Mulholland, having taken over with a circuit to run.
Idole First (12-1), ridden by Alan O’Keeffe, just held off the challenge of Laskari by two and a half lengths in the two-and-a-half-mile handicap Chase.
It was a fine training performance by Venetia Williams to produce the 2005 Coral Cup winner after a 283-day absence.