Leading John Smith’s Grand National contender Ballabriggs had to settle for second in the totesport.com Premier Chase at Kelso as Skippers Brig spoiled the party.
Sent off at 8-13, Cheltenham Festival winner Ballabriggs jumped superbly for Jason Maguire, apart from standing off the second-last, and Donald McCain’s 10-year-old looked to have done everything right when pinging the final fence.
Nicky Richards’ Skippers Brig (3-1) is a classy animal on his day at this sort of trip, however, and he showed superior speed on the run to the line to get up for a cosy length and three-quarter success.
Richards has his sights set on the National with his 11-year-old - and was not totally ruling out a stop at Cheltenham on the way if the heavens opened.
The Greystoke handler said: “I’m delighted with him, Brian (Harding) thought he was always going to pick him (Ballabriggs) up and that’s what happened.
“Brian knows the track well and rode a beautiful race on him. You wouldn’t want to run him on anything faster than this, but he has always been useful and has done me proud.
“It’s all ground dependant, if we had a lot of rain we might think about Cheltenham but hopefully we will have a wet National this time.
“I hope we can sneak in at the bottom (of the weights), it’s where you want to be and I think he’s one of the classier ones at the bottom.
“Brian is confident he would enjoy it at Aintree, he’s a big, scopey horse and there’s no reason why he wouldn’t go and have a pop at it.”
Despite defeat, McCain was thrilled with Ballabriggs, who will head straight to the National on April 9.
He said: “I’m delighted with him. He was odds-on but that’s the bookies, not me. This was a prep for the National and he travelled and jumped great.
“It turned into a bit of a sprint and he’s not a sprinter. Jason was delighted with him.
“I am trying to make sure we do it right and have him ready for the day. This is a great place to come and have a prep and he will go straight there.
“He’ll have a gallop somewhere along the line and with a clear round he will run a hell of a race,” he told At The Races.
McCain and Maguire also had to settle for second in the following event, the totepool Premier Kelso Hurdle, as Desert Cry, part-owned by Everton manager David Moyes, was run out of it by Bold Sir Brian.
Favourite Storm Brig was a big disappointment in the Grade Two contest, at the rear for a long way and never able to get in a blow.