Gambles come in all forms this week; yesterday trainer Philip Hobbs took a chance and landed the first leg of what might prove a succulent double. With two talented novice chasers at his disposal, he decided that one bite at each of two cherries would be better than two bites at one. So he rerouted Captain Chris to yesterday's two-mile Arkle Trophy, leaving tomorrow's longer Jewson Chase to stablemate Wishfull Thinking.
"The other race would probably have suited Captain Chris better," he said after the seven-year-old had seen off Finian's Rainbow in style, "and we could have played safe and given ourselves two chances. But we decided to go for glory and try to win both."
Yesterday's contest, the one Hobbs was less sure about, was the two-mile novices' crown, a Grade One with a purse of £130,000; tomorrow's is a Grade Two worth £90,000.
Hobbs reasoned that yesterday's fast ground would provide the fast pace that would bring Captain Chris's proven reserves of stamina into play, and so it proved. Richard Johnson kept Diana Whateley's gelding in touch with the gallop set by Dan Breen and Stagecoach Pearl and Finian's Rainbow, who took over in the back straight, but had no answer to Captain Chris's relentless challenge from the penultimate obstacle and his powerful surge up the hill.
"He really winged the second-last," said Johnson, "and for a big horse he was pretty nimble when he didn't meet the last right. His confidence seems to be growing with every race and I think He's probably quite special."
So does Somerset-based Hobbs, who has identified next season's King George VI Chase at Kempton as Captain Chris's first senior target.
Captain Chris has been helped by surgery to his airway, to help with his intake of oxygen. The veterinary attention experienced by the three-mile handicap chase winner Bensalem at Alan King's Wiltshire yard during the winter was rather less routine; in fact, without Jeremy Swan, MRCVS, he would have died from pleurisy.
And if Captain Chris's race was something of an afterthought, Bensalem's was not. The eight-year-old had fallen when travelling well in the equivalent contest 12 months previously, and his name had been on his bid for compensation since. After he fended off Carole's Legacy by a hard-fought half-length, there was an emotional welcome for him from both his trainer and owner, Alan Marsh.
"Justice has been done and this means an awful, awful lot," said King. "There were some vets who advised we should put him down, that is how ill he was. But Jeremy said to soldier on, and to have brought him back from that brink was remarkable."
The Grade Three race was Bensalem's first since his fall, and rider Robert Thornton's first Festival win for three years. "This has made up for the blanks," he said.
The cross-country contest over the quirky fences on the infield is an acquired taste; in yesterday's edition Sizing Australia, trained by Henry de Bromhead and ridden by Andrew Lynch, gave the Irish their second success of the day when thwarting dual past hero Garde Champetre.
"We didn't make enough use of him when he was down the field last year," said De Bromhead, "which was my fault; wrong instructions. So I told Andrew to ride it how he wanted today, and I'm glad he did."
The home side ended the first day 4-3 ahead against the Irish raiders after Divers, trained by Ferdy Murphy in Yorkshire, took the closing novices' handicap chase under a well-judged stalking ride from Graham Lee.Reuse content