Another of John Hales’ army of greys handed Paul Nicholls the last of jumping racing’s major prizes to have eluded him as Al Ferof took the starring role in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham.
Back in April, Hales’ Neptune Collonges had broken the champion trainer’s duck in the Grand National and he has always been keen to chalk off the first serious prize of the new National Hunt season.
It was also another rare omission from Ruby Walsh’s CV and, as ever, he proved the calmest man in a stormy big handicap, keeping the 8-1 chance safe from danger and driving him away from the stubborn Walkon to prevail by two lengths.
Largely seen over two miles when a novice last season, the second top-weight Al Ferof was fourth in the Arkle Trophy at the Festival when the stable was under a cloud.
“He must be a good horse,” said Nicholls. “He came in late because he cut himself in the field, but he had a gallop at Wincanton last weekend and went really well.
“I don’t think my horses were right last season, and he’s one of the six-year-olds that are improving.
“We’ll have to think about Kempton (King George VI Chase) now. I always wondered if he would stay but he stayed well there and you’d have to say it might suit him.”
Nicholls’ relentless charge through the first of the season’s big heats has made redundant the suggestion he would be relinquishing his title to Nicky Henderson.
“No one believes us but we don’t go out to win the title, the most important thing is days like today, bringing the young horses through,” he said. “But the main thing is to have horses for the big races.”
Hales has experienced several devastating moments in his racing life, such as the death of the great One Man, and his Nicholls-trained grey Granit Jack had lost his life when apparently going well in this very race five years ago.
He said: “That was a stunning performance, as good as from any horse I have owned. The rain concerned me today, I wasn’t as confident when I started looking at the race yesterday – I thought it was going to be difficult to give weight away to horses like Grands Crus.
“I think we have decided we will go to the King George now, and he is a horse that we are going to have to look after.”
Sponsors William Hill price Al Ferof at 7-1 to follow his peerless and now-retired stablemate Kauto Star in the King George on Boxing Day, while Walsh said: “You need a bit of class in this race, which is why we were keen to take a chance. In fairness to him we were forcing him at two (miles). Stepping up in trip is probably what we should be doing.
“He hasn’t run since Aintree, turned up today with 11st 8lb on his back and does it – but he is a class horse at the end of the day.”
Grands Crus, one of the greatest hopes of David Pipe, was hammered into 7-4 favourite but was eventually pulled-up before the second-last along with Hunt Ball for the effervescent owner Anthony Knott.
The latter’s trainer Keiran Burke blamed the soft ground while Pipe said of Grands Crus: “Tom (Scudamore) just said he wasn’t really ever that happy with him, he lost a near-fore plate but no excuses, we’ll get him home and see.
“He had his heart checked afterwards and that was fine, he’s in one piece and far worse things happen. I don’t think so (ground to blame), he’s handled very soft ground before.”
Alan King was delighted with Walkon, and said: “He did everything right bar win. He was just beaten by a better horse on the day. He could come back here in December but he’s probably better fresh.”