Haydock: Thomas shows that stand-ins can still produce star quality

Top chaser proves he is still best around by beating old rival Exotic Dancer once again

Are you watching, Scott Carson? Big-race rookie Sam Thomas rose to the occasion here yesterday, defying any nerves and pressure to steer Kauto Star back to winning ways. Thomas, replacing injured Ruby Walsh on the Paul Nicholls-trained champion chaser, remained ice-cool in a crucible of scrutiny with much at stake – a considerable step on his burgeoning career, the horse's reputation and the small matter of a £1 million – and almost nonchalantly secured victory by half a length.

Despite his defeat first time out this season, Kauto Star started 4-5 favourite to take his second successive Betfair Chase. His chief rival was perceived as one of last season's top novices, My Way De Solzen, but in the end it was old rival Exotic Dancer who was closest at the finish.

Thomas, 23, had to think on his feet as habitual trailblazer Ollie Magern took a flier from the tapes and hurtled to a wide-margin lead for most of the first circuit. "The plan had been to drop in and creep closer though the race," he said, "but the pace the leader went off I had to keep him to the front of the chasing group. There wasn't the luxury of time to settle behind."

My Way de Solzen, ridden by Choc Thornton, matched strides with Kauto Star, even outjumping him at times. But once the hare was caught and brushed aside, Kauto Star slapped down the gauntlet to his rival with two spectacular leaps, at the plain fence six from home and the following open ditch, where he powered to the lead to huge approbation from the rainswept faithful in the stands.

Exotic Dancer, who chased him home in both the King George VI Chase and Gold Cup, looked a threat, but though he came his closest yet, was always second best.

"He is just awesome," said Thomas. "He had to do it the hard way, chasing Ollie Magern from the start, but he settled nicely and jumped absolutely beautifully. If he'd winged the last – he didn't make a mistake but was in a little tight – he would have won much more easily."

The £300,000 contest, the first leg of the £1m Betfair bonus treble completed last term by Kauto Star with his victories at Kempton and Cheltenham, was a first Grade One success for Thomas, who joined Nicholls as No 2 last year.

"I wasn't nervous, just tried to treat it like an ordinary race," said the maths teachers' son from Abergavenny. "But this is exactly what dreams are made of, and I hope it will put me on the map." Nicholls' emotions encompassed delight and relief. "Last month's race was a stepping stone to today and the rest of the season," said the trainer. "We're now back on track, not that we were ever really off it."

At Ascot Hard Eustace produced one a trademark teak-tough rallies to outbattle Afsoun by half a length in the feature hurdle. The race was marred by the second high-profile fatality in as many Saturdays. Nicholls lost Granit Jack at Cheltenham last week; this time it was the Philip Hobbs' yard left distraught by the death of Detroit City, who suffered a ruptured valve in his heart at the second flight.