What A Friend suffered an unexpected defeat at the hands of his stable companion Noland in the Aon Chase at Newbury today.
Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson arrived at the course to watch his horse take part in a final preliminary for the Cheltenham Gold Cup but he was unable to wear down a revived Noland (13-2) and was beaten by a head.
Noland's owner John Hales had hinted at the possibility of retirement for the injury-hit triple Grade One winner after an abject performance at Cheltenham last time, but he had been persuaded otherwise by jockey Tony McCoy and trainer Paul Nicholls.
Harry Skelton needed to switch the wayward 4-5 favourite for a challenge up the run-in but What A Friend could not find quite enough and will be fitted with headgear on his next start.
Nicholls said: "AP was adamant that we gave him one more run after his last race.
"He's finished a little bit distressed and his wind is still getting him even though he's had operations and had a tongue-tie on.
"With the problems that he's had it's been very hard to get him back, but it's testament to the horse's ability and class that he's won.
"I took him out of the Gold Cup but he could go to Aintree (for the totesport Bowl)."
Of What A Friend, he said: "It was adequate. Harry said from the minute he jumped off he was hating the ground.
"He'll be better on better ground and I might just put a pair of blinkers on him in the Gold Cup.
"You'd definitely let him take his chance and one race I'd love to run him in is the Grand National, although it might be a year too soon.
"But if it's very soft at Cheltenham, we might find something at Aintree instead."
There was an outstanding finish to the most valuable event on the card, the totesport Trophy Hurdle, with Recession Proof and Dougie Costello foiling the courageous Bothy by a short-head.
It was only a fourth start over hurdles for Recession Proof (12-1) as John Quinn got the edge over his Malton neighbour Brian Ellison, who handles Bothy.
In a typically rough-house renewal of the handicap, Zanir, Salden Licht and Rebel Dancer all came down at the second-last while the 3-1 favourite Walkon was never dangerous and beat only one home.
Notus De La Tour made nearly all the running and held on for third in a finishing order which would have been very hard to call a furlong out.
Costello said: "The boss has tutored him through very well. He's still a novice but he's got that speed through a race and he's able to travel. He was very keen down the back and we've gone a sensible pace in the ground.
"I had to commit going to the last but he's won well. He's a horse with real class."
Quinn said by telephone later that Recession Proof would be aimed for the Stan James Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham, where the sponsors quote 10-1.
Ellison added: "The winner's useful and our horse has run a blinder yet again.
"We'll go for either the County Hurdle or the Coral Cup at Cheltenham."
Nicky Henderson has a dilemma concerning French Opera after his decisive victory over Tchico Polos in an ordinary-looking renewal of the totesport Game Spirit Chase.
"He has just been really well in himself for the last couple of weeks," said Henderson of the 7-2 chance.
"It was quite hard work on his last run at Sandown with top-weight in a competitive handicap and I was a bit worried about the (soft) ground.
"He had top weight in the race I wanted to win last year, the Grand Annual, when he was second and it's almost certain he'll have top weight again.
"He's in the Champion Chase and we might just have a look at that but I don't think Barry Geraghty (jockey) will be deserting Big Zeb."
Henderson's Ericht (11-10 favourite) was promoted to 7-1 market leader with Ladbrokes for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper (10s with Coral) after outpointing Bygones In Brid in a hot-looking bet totepool On 0800 221 221 Winter Bumper.
"I hate the race (Cheltenham) but I suppose he'll have to run in it," said Henderson.
Bygones In Brid is owned by Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, who said: "That was a red-hot bumper and you've got to be pleased with that. I'll leave it to the boss (Alan King) about Cheltenham."
Stow (12-1) took the totesport.com Handicap Hurdle, where last year's Grand National winner Don't Push It showed much promise as a staying-on seventh.
His trainer Jonjo O'Neill said: "That was probably better than I thought. He missed a bit after his last run and we'll wait and see now.
"I was thinking about running him in a chase over two and a half miles back here on March 5, or he could go to Cheltenham I suppose."
Tim Vaughan has Cheltenham aspirations for Our Island (5-1) after his gritty display in the totesport 0800 221 221 Novices' Hurdle.
"He is entered in the Albert Bartlett and if it's soft I think he's have a cracking each-way chance in that as all he does is stay and stay," ventured the Welshman.
Nicholls' Aitennthirtythree (10-11 favourite) came home in splendid isolation in the Bet totepool At totesport.com Novices' Chase and the trainer and his landlord Paul Barber will now need to resolve a difference of opinion.
"Paul Barber is not keen on the RSA but I think he has an outstanding chance as he has speed, he stays and he gallops," said Nicholls.
"I wouldn't go against his wishes but it didn't do Denman any harm running there."