Neptune Collonges earned himself the right to at least another supporting role in the Gold Cup after the often-discounted grey returned to the winner’s enclosure for the first time in nearly two years in the Argento Chase at Cheltenham.
Three times successful in Irish Grade Ones, Neptune Collonges ran with credit to place behind his better-known stable companions Denman and Kauto Star at the 2008 and 2009 Festivals and this reawakening display looks to have scotched any possibility of an alternative bid for the Grand National.
After missing the whole of last season and with just two comeback runs behind him, Paul Nicholls’ runner was expected to be overshadowed by Punchestowns in this key trial but jockey Tony McCoy never allowed the 11-10 favourite a look-in.
As Neptune Collonges (11-2) became ever more confident, Punchestowns took a more cautious approach and began to weaken at the top of the hill.
Tidal Bay, who is not renowned for straightforward efforts, delivered another of his riddles as he emerged from a particularly unpromising position to chase down the gap between himself and Neptune Collonges to a length and a quarter.
“I’m thrilled for the horse,” said Nicholls.
“It’s been a long road back but he was unlucky in the Hennessy Gold Cup when we thought he would run well and he missed the break last time, but it didn’t do him any harm and he had a good run round.
“It’s good to see him come back and win a nice race. I told AP to make every post a winning one.
“He’s got an entry for the National and an entry for a Gold Cup, but we’ll see how he is and have a chat about the future.”
Neptune Collonges bears more than a slight resemblance to the much-loved One Man, who won this Grade Two event for his owner John Hales back in 1997.
Hales added: “We were going for the National but I don’t think he will get the weight now and he’ll probably have to go for the Gold Cup. We’ll have a chat about it.
“AP said he was a joy to ride, his jumping was brilliant and he was 100% in his attitude. I didn’t come here expecting to win but that was wonderful.”
Sponsors totesport cut Neptune Collonges to 20-1 from 50s for their showpiece event where he will come face-to-face with Kauto Star and Denman yet again.
“We thought there were a few doubts about Punchestowns and Tidal Bay so the plan was to get them at it,” explained McCoy.
“He’s an older horse who knows his way around and he’s just a pleasure to ride.”
Tidal Bay, who has had various incarnations as a two-mile chaser and a staying hurdler, will now be given a different challenge.
Trainer Howard Johnson said: “They went too slow for him – they didn’t go a gallop.
“We might as well go for the Gold Cup. What else is there for him?”
Punchestowns eventually finished 30 lengths further back in third and left trainer Nicky Henderson in a rather difficult position.
“We wanted to come here to get a run into him,” explained the trainer.
“I know that was not exactly what we wanted to see but Barry (Geraghty) was very pleased with his jumping and the way he has travelled.
“He has taken a blow and he does take a massive amount of work. His feet are always a problem too and they make it difficult.
“That will have done him the world of good and we’ll press on. I’d like to get another run into him but where we go I’m not sure. I’m not sure you would want to be running him in the Aon at Newbury in just two weeks’ time.”