My Will, denied victory on his last appearance because of flaws in his jumping technique, benefited from the errors of others at Cheltenham yesterday to take the afternoon's Grade Two feature, the Dipper Chase. The horse who had beaten him at Windsor two weeks previously, See You Sometime, came down at the third fence and the hot favourite Fundamentalist, who had had My Will well behind at Prestbury Park in November, went at the tenth.
But there was no question of a victory by default; as See You Sometime's trainer Seamus Mullins sagely remarked: "They are there to be jumped, aren't they?" With rank-outsider Tom Nail pulling up before the tenth, the open ditch in the back straight, only My Will and El Vaquero were left in the contest, a two-and-a-half miler for novices. My Will, well suited by the distance and easy underfoot conditions, was the first of the pair under pressure but responded to Ruby Walsh's urgings, headed his sole rival two fences from home and stayed on determinedly up the testing final hill to prevail by four lengths.
The near-black French-bred five-year-old has always been held in the highest regard by trainer Paul Nicholls and booked his ticket to the Festival with yesterday's gritty display. The two-mile novices' crown, though, has been ruled out. "He'll have a break now, and we'll look for something back here in March," said Nicholls, "but it won't be the Arkle, he's not fast enough. I was slightly worried about running him today - I didn't decide until yesterday - as he'd had a hard enough race at Windsor. But he seemed well in himself and we didn't have much to lose by giving it a go."
And quite a lot to win, a first prize of £20,300. Owner Andy Stewart added to his bank balance just over an hour later when Walsh kidded and coaxed the enigmatic Le Duc to win the day's richest race, the £23,200 two-mile, five-furlong handicap. Stewart became rather flouncy when the Irishman cried off his Le Roi Miguel to ride the same stable's Azertyuiop in the King George VI on Boxing Day, but the pair seem to have kissed and made up, to their mutual benefit. Walsh and Nicholls started 2005 in fine style with a 329-1 three-timer, for they also teamed up in the opener with Cornish Sett, whose owner Peter Hart achieved his life's ambition of a winner at Cheltenham with his first runner at the track.
The huge disappointment of the afternoon was the performance of well-backed 4-7 shot Fundamentalist, and the cheers that arose from the bookmakers at his departure seemed in poor taste, even if the first three races had gone to market leaders. The seven-year-old is an exciting talent and his uncharacteristic lack of commitment at the obstacles made uncomfortable viewing. He did not actually fall, but barely took off and gave Carl Llewellyn no chance as he crashed through the birch. Fundamentalist walked away apparently sound, but he had raced like a horse who was hurting somewhere. Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies' first reaction was to have another go sooner rather than later. "He didn't have a cut at them, which is unlike him," he said. "We'll have a look at him, but we'll have another run as soon as possible to get this out of the way."
Another of the game's quirky characters, Westender, won his first race for more than three years when he took the two-and-a-half mile hurdle. The blinkered nine-year-old, who finished second in the 2003 Champion Hurdle, was trying the distance for only the second time but took the task to his rivals as he set off in front at a brisk gallop under Timmy Murphy, leaping fluently throughout. Monkerhostin and then Big Moment tried to close, but Westender's class and, on this occasion, bravery prevailed and he had nine lengths to spare at the line.
Murphy and Pipe also made it a happy new year with a double when top-weight Korelo came from last to first to inch home in the final stride of the three-mile handicap hurdle, but it was less so for Tony McCoy, who picked up a seven-day ban for careless riding on third-placed Gotno Destination in the closing bumper.