Racing: Nicholls in flow for Festival

Strong Flow beaten but unbowed in the run-up to Cheltenham as Farmer Jack has a field day

The two Cheltenham Gold Cup heavyweight protagonists in the Aon Chase, Strong Flow and Celestial Gold, were unsplittable in the market at 2-1 joint favourites and not much further apart at the finish, with just a head the difference after a rousing tussle from the final fence. With the small detail, however, that a length and a half in front of them was Farmer Jack, an afterthought wild-card addition to yesterday's field and not entered in chasing's blue riband at all.

The two Cheltenham Gold Cup heavyweight protagonists in the Aon Chase, Strong Flow and Celestial Gold, were unsplittable in the market at 2-1 joint favourites and not much further apart at the finish, with just a head the difference after a rousing tussle from the final fence. With the small detail, however, that a length and a half in front of them was Farmer Jack, an afterthought wild-card addition to yesterday's field and not entered in chasing's blue riband at all.

In the aftermath, reaction to what is the last recognised domestic blue-riband trial varied at different points round the unsaddling enclosure. Philip Hobbs, trainer of the winner, rather poured cold water on the worth of the result, which left the Gold Cup market largely unmoved; Paul Nicholls, Strong Flow's handler, was more inclined to toast it in champagne; and to Martin Pipe, responsible for Celestial Gold, it was small enough beer.

Focus beforehand was mainly on Strong Flow, who was running over fences for the first time for 14 months after his impressive novice season was cut abruptly short by a knee injury. The eight-year-old's comeback over hurdles last month was encour- aging and yesterday's effort, in which his technique over the larger obstacles was given a searching examination, even more so.

Ruby Walsh sent the handsome bay to the front at the water jump and he put in some conspicuously flamboyant but accurate leaps as he and Farmer Jack swapped strides for most of the final circuit.

Celestial Gold made stealthy, menacing progress from off the pace but was untidiest of the trio as they crossed the last, more or less in the air together. He and Strong Flow never gave up, but it was the 12-1 shot Farmer Jack, under Richard Johnson, who proved the strongest in the face of a blustery headwind to record his first success over three miles. He may get another crack at the distance in the Racing Post Chase at Kempton 13 days hence.

"We only put him in the race on Tuesday, when it was reopened because of the small original entry," said Hobbs. "I'm not sure it took much winning, though. The second horse has had his problems, the third has won handicaps off a low weight, the fourth [Sir Rembrandt] hasn't been at his best and the fifth [Gingembre] hadn't run for two years."

Nicholls, though, was delighted with Strong Flow, who was blowing like a grampus in the runner-up spot. "That was just what he needed," he said. "I told Ruby to be positive, to make him work, get him jumping and attacking. This was another step forward and he'll improve again for it. I'm under no illusions, though; to be a Gold Cup contender, he'll have to."

It was Celestial Gold's first crack at the best at level weights, and he acquitted himself well. But Pipe was typically non-committal. "He's entered in everything he can be at the Festival, as are our others. We've plenty of options and we'll keep them open. But he's proved he can keep this sort of company." The Nicholashayne trainer added that Our Vic, badly shaken in a fall at Cheltenham in December, was on track for next month's meeting but would not run beforehand.

Strong Flow's stablemate Azertyuiop, the reigning two-mile champion, repeated last year's success in the Game Spirit Chase and put the young pretender Well Chief in his place in the process, giving him 4lb and a two-and-a-half length beating. Well Chief was always playing catch-up after a blunder at the fifth; by contrast Azertyuiop, the 11-10 favourite, was virtually faultless, his only error a brush-through at the last. "He was a bit deep," said Walsh, "but he was getting a bit tired and I didn't want to give him a kick and put him on the floor."

Once again, Nicholls was more than satisfied as the eight-year-old prepares to defend his crown against the Irish crack Moscow Flyer. "We didn't want him absolutely right until Cheltenham, and he was heavy today," he said. "It's going to be a fantastic race next month."

Essex added his name to the already strong Irish challenge for the Champion Hurdle with an easy win in the usually competitive Totesport Trophy. Carrying the burden of 11st 6lb, the Michael O'Brien-trained five-year-old was handy throughout, jumped into the lead at the last and powered home by a long-looking three lengths. Essex, notching his fourth win fromfive runs over hurdles, was more than halved in price, to 14-1 in most lists. "He's got great heart and is a decent little horse," said Barry Geraghty.

At Gowran, last year's Champion Hurdle winner Hardy Eustace completed his Cheltenham build-up with barely more than an exercise gallop to win the Red Mills Trial by 25 hard-held lengths.

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