National hero Abbey proves a proper Charlie

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The Independent Online

After a week of dreary autumnal weather, the sun shone brightly on Weatherby yesterday afternoon. But it was a grey day for all that, as last season's Scottish National hero Grey Abbey put in an astoundingly gutsy performance to take the Charlie Hall Chase.

It was a long way from Gloucestershire, but many of the punters must have been looking forward to March, and hoping to see a potential challenger to Best Mate's Prestbury Park supremacy. At any rate, they saw the horse that got nearest to him at Cheltenham last year. Sir Rembrandt, making his first appearance since running the triple Gold Cup winner to half a length, was sent off 5-2 favourite for the Grade Two contest, and when he moved up to challenge Grey Abbey four out, it looked as if he would justify the interest. But the Howard Johnson-trained grey, who had made all the running with a spring in his step, was taken on by Graham Lee to a three-length victory.

Lee, who took this race last year on another Johnson horse, Ballybough Rasher, said of yesterday's winner: "His heart is the biggest part of him. He jumped superb and ground them into the ground. He is so tough. He never knows when he is beat."

Johnson was similarly lavish in his praise. "Marvellous!" he enthused. "Over the years he would be my favourite horse. We'll give him a quiet season, and maybe we'll go down the Gold Cup route if it comes up soft at Cheltenham. He's just a natural and he doesn't like being passed."

Robert Alner, Sir Rembrandt's trainer, was also pleased. "I'm delighted," he said. "He was beaten by a very good horse and he jumped well and battled on well. We had to give him a run because I couldn't do any more with him at home. I don't know what we'll do now, but you can rule out the King George, and of course the Gold Cup is the main target."

And while the opening of the jumping was the focus of attention, the last day of the Flat season at Newmarket was enlivened by a controversial decision to reverse the placings in the Ben Marshall Stakes. Following an enquiry, the stewards decreed that Darryll Holland had allowed his mount Babodana to carry second-placed Sleeping Indian across the course, and gave the race to the challenger. Holland was given a two-day careless riding ban; he and trainer John Gosden vowed to appeal the decision.