Bear takes Kingwell glory

Straw Bear appeared right back to his best when posting an authoritative victory in the Bathwick Tyres Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton - but trainer Nick Gifford immediately played down his charge's Cheltenham Festival hopes.

Straw Bear appeared right back to his best when posting an authoritative victory in the Bathwick Tyres Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton - but trainer Nick Gifford immediately played down his charge's Cheltenham Festival hopes.

Tony McCoy flew in by helicopter from Ascot to partner the chestnut for owner JP McManus, who was making a rare visit to the Somerset track.

Two weeks previously at Sandown, Straw Bear had run Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle favourite Detroit City to less than two lengths but rather than holding him up again, McCoy soon kicked on from the front.

The 8-11 favourite had his only serious rival Afsoun hard at work straightening for home and never let up for a seven-length success, while Trouble At Bay plugged on for third.

The winner was quickly cut to 7-1 from 10s by Ladbrokes for the Cheltenham showpiece.

"They went quicker today and the reason we came here was to jump at speed," Gifford explained.

"I still think we're still chasing places in the Champion because, with no disrespect to Afsoun, the Irish horses have been there and done it.

"We gave him one schooling session after Sandown, where we had left a little to work on, but that should put him spot-on."

Afsoun's trainer Nicky Henderson looked a little disappointed but said: "I have absolutely no excuses and I thought Straw Bear was impressive today.

"Mick Fitzgerald said he jumped and travelled well. Trevor (Hemmings, owner) was not here so we'll have to think about the future."

David Pipe chose to attend Ascot but with hindsight should have been at Wincanton, where he notched a hat-trick and reached a century of winners in his first season since taking over from father Martin.

He took the Listed Country Gentlemen's Association Chase, where well-backed 10-11 favourite Little Brick made an encouraging British debut.

Little Brick has already been supported for the John Smith's Grand National and after he made most of the running under McCoy, his Aintree odds tumbled further.

After holding the plucky My Will by three and a half lengths, from whom he was receiving 17lb, William Hill trimmed him to 14-1 from 25s.

Martin Pipe said: "He'd been off for a long time - 490 days - as he took a long time to settle in.

"It's a good start and we are very pleased. David and his owner Thomas Barr will have to talk about things but he is entered at Cheltenham and in the Grand National and his jumping was impeccable."

Pipe's ton came in the Taunton Handicap Chase, sponsored like the rest of the card by Bathwick Tyres, which was taken with complete nonchalance by 11-4 favourite Lucifer Bleu.

Andrew Glassonbury and the lightly-raced eight-year-old soon opened up a huge advantage and although his supporters let out a few gasps as he climbed over the last three fences, he was heavily eased to beat Black Hills by 11 lengths.

"It's the 100th winner, but not quite as fast as I made it - it took me about 12 years!" quipped Martin Pipe.

"The horse had two and a half years off with leg problems and the owners were very patient."

Pipe junior added from Ascot: "It's been a great day. The only problem is I told my staff we'd have a big party when I hit 100 so I'm going to have to come up with the goods!

"It's a whole team effort and if I could fluke a Cheltenham Festival winner too, it would be the icing on the cake."

Glassonbury also stole the Salisbury Novices' Hurdle on Osana (5-2).

It appeared he would be swallowed up by the chasing pack but quickened clear again with two flights to run and was good value for a six-length verdict over promising hurdling debutant Song Of Songs.

The winner is 33-1 with Hills for both the Ballymore Properties and the Anglo Irish Bank Supreme Novices' Hurdles.

Ursis had earlier opened up Festival prospects of his own in the H.B.L.B. Kingmaker Novices' Chase.

The Grade Two race, rescheduled from Warwick last week, had been billed as a Cheltenham springboard for 5-6 favourite Opera Mundi, who tracked Ursis (7-2) from the outset and loomed large turning for home.

But Ursis and Dominic Elsworth, making his debut for Steve Gollings, had not read the script and doggedly fought off his rival to score by three-quarters of a length.

"Much of the credit must go to his owner Phil Martin, who bought him himself for 50,000 guineas at the sales about three weeks ago," said Gollings.

"It was no fluke and he needed to win this to get a handicap mark for Cheltenham, and he has the Grand Annual and the Jewson Handicap as options.

"He's not tall but he's strong and possibly there might also be something at Aintree or Punchestown."

Beau Michel (8-1) did not look the winner of the Yeovil Handicap Hurdle with a mile to run with Sam Thomas hard at work.

But as Golden Bay slithered out with two to jump and Nathos started to wander around, he was able to rally on the run-in and score by two lengths.

"He can be a bit naughty and will have blinkers next time," said trainer Paul Nicholls. "He will also want a bit further when he goes chasing next season."

Norton Sapphire (9-2) and James White just edged out Petit Lord by a neck in a fine duel for the closing Dorchester Handicap Hurdle.

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