You win nothing with kids, so the saying goes, and sure enough Paul Nicholls needed input from two of his yard's oldest stagers to take his seventh trainer's championship last season in the face of a strong, sustained challenge from Nicky Henderson. But though the peerless Kauto Star and the Grand National hero Neptune Collonges have now retired, the kids have grown up. And they seem to be alright.
Here yesterday, Al Ferof became the latest of the talented Manor Farm youth squad to book his place on the first team. In taking the Paddy Power Gold Cup by three lengths, powering clear of Walkon on the demanding uphill run to the finish with his ears cheerfully pricked, the seven-year-old has galloped to second favouritism for next month's King George VI Chase, as short as 5-1.
He also gave Nicholls and rider Ruby Walsh their first victory in the valuable two-and-a-half miler that is the centrepiece of the three-day fixture here, and which regularly highlights performers on an upward curve. And – though it is the earliest of days to be thinking of titles – the £91,120 prize took Nicholls some £300,000 clear of his nearest pursuer at this stage, Donald McCain.
Al Ferof followed his second- season chasing stablemates Silviniaco Conti, Kauto Stone and Cristal Bonus into a prestige winner's circle this term and there seems, too, strength in depth among the emerging Manor Farm hurdlers. "Despite the good season we had," Nicholls said, "I never felt that any of mine were really absolutely right last year, they weren't really sparkling. But this time they look stunning, they're working well and they're doing it on the track."
Yesterday's grey hero – in the same ownership, that of John Hales, and by the same sire, Dom Alco, as Neptune Collonges – was one of the last of Nicholls' charges to step up to full training after his summer break, but has swiftly made up the lost time. "He cut himself out in the field and came in late," the trainer said, "but he is one of those who goes best when he is fresh. And the piece of work he did on Thursday was the best he has ever done."
Though the gelding, an 8-1 shot, showed some early over-exuberance on his first outing since April, he soon settled in Walsh's hands and three fences from the finish nothing was travelling more easily. He and Walkon were in the air together two out, but of the two white chargers, Al Ferof was the more dashing, even under his hefty burden of 11st 8lb. "He was pretty much cantering all the way," Walsh said, "but then, he is a class horse."
Overnight rain had made ground conditions thoroughly testing and put a premium on stamina. "I knew he was starting to come right," added Nicholls of the French-bred, "but perhaps I didn't expect him to win that well. I thought it was a stunning performance. And now he's showed how well he stays, a lot of options are opened up. If he does go for the King George, he won't run before then.
"As far as the Festival goes, we might wait a year before asking him to go three-and-a-quarter [in the Gold Cup]. I should think the Ryanair Chase would be perfect at this stage. But you never know. He'll tell us where and when and what."
Twelve lengths behind the 7-1 chance Walkon, who was receiving 16lb from his victorious rival, Nadiya De La Vega (12-1) stayed on into third, with long-time trailblazer Casey Top belying his odds of 40-1 in fourth.
The disappointment of the race was the performance of the hotly supported 7-4 favourite, Grands Crus. The grey, towards the rear early, moved into contention behind the leaders approaching the last half-mile, but found little under pressure and was pulled up before the second last. "I thought we were going OK," rider Tom Scudamore said, "but he just got tired very, very quickly."
Grands Crus, pushed out in the King George betting and even removed from some lists, came in with his near-fore shoe missing. "One fell in front of him with a circuit to go, as well," said his trainer, David Pipe, "but they're not excuses, just what happened. We'll get him checked out, but the important thing is that he's back in one piece."
As Nicholls has shortened slightly in the trainers' title betting, so Henderson has eased. And the underfoot conditions here have, frustratingly, prompted the challenger to postpone today's expected seasonal debut of his own brightest young star, Sprinter Sacre.
The six-year-old, who had the highest rating of any of last season's novice chasers, will now start his road to the senior two-mile crown, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, in next month's Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown.