Champion hurdle contender Mille Chief came through his Cheltenham trial with a victory yesterday, though not in the style his trainer Alan King might have hoped for, scraping home by about an inch in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. But a win is a win and this gutsy one was achieved despite, rather than because of, the way the race panned out.
Mille Chief was at one disadvantage before the tapes went up; the tacky ground was not in his favour. He put himself at a second by running too freely and, although he seemed in control as he shadowed the leaders on the turn for home, the reserves he found after tackling Celestial Halo two out were only just enough.
The two went head-to-head down the straight and a mistake by the runner-up, narrowly beaten in the 2009 Champion Hurdle, at the final obstacle may have made the difference. The pair did, though, draw a long way clear of the third home, Ronaldo Des Mottes, and Mille Chief's rider Robert Thornton was delighted with his mount's effort on his first outing for six weeks.
He said: "We went a good solid gallop. I thought I had it won at the last but fair play to the other horse, he stuck at it. All credit to my lad too, though, he showed he's got a bit of fight about him."
Kribensis, Hors La Loi and, three years ago, Mille Chief's stablemate Katchit all completed the Wincanton-Cheltenham double and yesterday's hero remains at around 12-1 to follow their hoofprints three weeks on Tuesday. "He ran with the choke out for the first half-mile," added King, "and he hated that sticky ground. I hope we don't hear too much about watering at Cheltenham beforethe opening day."
Dunguib, one of Ireland's challengers for the Festival's opening day feature is the same price after a rather easier success at Gowran, his first run for 10 months. The eight-year-old, ridden by Brian O'Connell, was also rather keen in the early stages in a tactical three-horse affair, but was well in control by the last and strode clear for a three-and-a-half length defeat of Luska Lad. "Five weeks ago he was a sick horse," said trainer Philip Fenton. "But he's beginning to blossom again and he can only come on now in leaps and bounds."
The King George VI Chase runner-up Riverside Theatre justified 11-10 favouritism to take his own top-level prize in the Ascot Chase. But the race was robbed of any competitive element and thoroughly marred by a fatal injury to Celestial Halo's Paul Nicholls stablemate Pride Of Dulcote, who broke a hind leg as he crashed through the eighth fence.
Riverside Theatre, whose Festival target is likely to be the Ryanair Chase, took control two out and came home 10 lengths clear of Gauvain. The victory was one of a four-timer for trainer Nicky Henderson and jockey Barry Geraghty, the others being by novice chaser Master Of The Hall, novice hurdler Sprinter Sacre and bumper horse Mono Man, all Festival-bound.
At Haydock, Silver By Nature showed he is the horse for the course with a back-to-back success in the Grand National Trial, a 15-length staying tour de force that has him as short as 14-1 to become the first Scottish-trained winner – he is with Lucinda Russell near Kinross – of the real thing at Aintree since Rubstic 32 years ago.