Racing: Well Chief wins the weighting game to boost Festival claims

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The Independent Online

When Moscow Flyer, the pride of all Ireland, turns out at Punchestown this afternoon for his final Cheltenham Festival prep, he may have the reaction to events here yesterday still ringing in his ears, an echo of the time-honoured football terrrace challenge: "Are you watching over there?"

When Moscow Flyer, the pride of all Ireland, turns out at Punchestown this afternoon for his final Cheltenham Festival prep, he may have the reaction to events here yesterday still ringing in his ears, an echo of the time-honoured football terrrace challenge: "Are you watching over there?" Well Chief, the only horse considered remotely capable of disturbing the hegemony enjoyed at the top of the two-mile chasing hierarchy by the Flyer and his great rival Azertyuiop, produced a stunning display to win the Victor Chandler Chase.

These days, not many top-class chasers are asked to carry big weights against lesser performers. And in giving 15lb and more away to nine more-than-smart rivals, Well Chief produced an effort right out of the ordinary, for the last horse to defy a rating as high in a handicap was Desert Orchid, when he won the Racing Post Chase 15 years ago next month.

Well Chief had class on his side, but not much else. He was not only conceding lumps, but came to the fray after a crunching fall at Wetherby and was running on ground far from ideal. In the betting before the race, he was a bigger drifter than the Marie Celeste, going out to 5-1. "He had everything against him, and he still came up trumps," said trainer Martin Pipe. "There were so many negatives in the papers, but luckily he can't read."

The Pipe team's tactics panned out perfectly. Rodi Greene, on the winner's 50-1 stablemate Golden Alpha, set a searching gallop, enabling Timmy Murphy to settle Well Chief off the pace. Coming down the final hill the outsider was still charging along, but it was clear that as Murphy edged closer his mount was still hard on the steel. Two out, the little six-year-old was upsides the leaders, the Paul Nicholls-trained pair Thisthatandtother, the 2-1 favourite, and Kadarann having joined issue; by the last his white blaze was showing in front, and a fine leap settled matters. At the line, he had a length and a half to spare over Thisthatandtother, with seven back to Kadarann. Gallant Golden Alpha plugged on for fourth.

With his first win of the season under his girth, and a foot-perfect round of jumping, Well Chief will go to his Festival showdown with the big two with confidence restored and youth on his side.

"He deserves a shot at them," said Murphy. "At his age, there's going to be more improvement. And he's a better horse on better ground; out there today it was dead. He's not the biggest horse, but he's stocky, and a real fighter."

That Well Chief, still third favourite for the two-mile crown but clipped in price to 5-2, bounced back so brightly from his experience at Wetherby is testament to his own resilience and to the skills at Nicholashayne. He was taken back to square one by the stable's jumping maestro, former jockey Jonathon Lower. "As usual, he deserves the credit," said Pipe, "but the little horse is very tough."

Any horse needing advice on jumping would be well advised to watch the video of Grey Abbey's demolition of the Pillar Property Chase field just over an hour later. The Howard Johnson-trained 11-year-old simply ran his rivals ragged from the front in the Gold Cup eliminator, eventually powering up the hill 16 lengths in front of Pipe's Therealbandit, who put up a much better show than he did behind Kicking King in the King George VI Chase, with Royal Auclair third.

"Any jockey who didn't enjoy that should give up," said the winning rider, Graham Lee. "He's just a joy to sit on. All you have to do is leave your brains in the weighing room and steer. He knows more about it than you do."

Grey Abbey's expertise was particularly apparent when he put in an especially flamboyant leap early in the straight on the first circuit, for which he earned a pat of appreciative delight from Lee. "Ryanair would have left the ground before him," added the Irishman. "He's got so much scope through the air."

Whether or not Grey Abbey, having his first outing since beating last year's Gold Cup runner-up Sir Rembrandt in October, returns for the blue riband will depend on the ground; he is less at home when it rides fast and his trainer considers the Grand National a more suitable race. "The softer the better," said Johnson. "He can cope with it, and he burns them off with his jumping. Until this week, he hadn't jumped a fence since his last race. But I popped him over a few on Wednesday, and he was electric."

A day that abounded with Cheltenham pointers was topped and tailed by two eyecatching young hurdlers. Ambobo, giving the Bordeaux-based Arnaud Chaille-Chaille his first win here with his first runner, is bound for the Royal & Sun-Alliance Hurdle, and Grey Abbey's four-year-old stablemate Akilak for the Triumph Hurdle after his winning debut.

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