The riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that is New Little Bric returned to his best form at Newbury yesterday to take the day's richest prize, the £53,000 Totesport.com Gold Cup Handicap Chase. The talented but moody eight-year-old has, by the admission of his trainer, Paul Nicholls, had him tearing his hair out in frustration, but this time a new pair of hands on the reins and a set of blinkers achieved the desired result.
Under the firm guidance of Nick Schofield, one of the Manor Farm conditional riders, New Little Bric took the lead before the home turn and stayed on strongly in the straight to firstly repel, then power away from, the well-backed 11-4 favourite The Package, scoring by seven lengths.
The victory was New Little Bric's first since he took a novices' Grade One contest two years ago, and was a performance in stark contrast to his effort at Kempton seven days previously, when he mulishly refused to raise a gallop and was pulled up.
"He ran so badly then that I took him out of all his Cheltenham engagements," said Nicholls, "and I almost didn't run him today. But we schooled him in blinkers during the week and they seemed to spark him into life. I think he's been kidding us and I told Nick not to give him an inch in the race."
Schofield was winning the two-and-a-half-miler for the second successive year, having scored on his stable's Natal 12 months ago. "He's a horse with all the ability in the world," he said of New Little Bric, "but once he was in front he was doing absolutely nothing."
With hurdlers Definity and Indian Blood also winning, Nicholls completed a treble yesterday to maintain his excellent form on the run-up to next week's Cheltenham Festival. His Somerset empire has been on a crest all season with a strike-rate of 28 per cent, but if there is a wave breaking at exactly the right time, it is the one being ridden by Alan King.
With the most important meeting of the year only nine days away, his Wiltshire yard has upped its game. King has been operating at 18 per cent for most of the campaign but four winners yesterday – Lake Legend, Georgian King, Lidar and West End Rocker at Doncaster – took his strike-rate to 29 per cent over the past eight days.
The Doncaster feature, the Grimthorpe Chase, went to Philip Hobbs's 11-year-old charge Out The Black. Last year's Grand National winner, Comply Or Die, was an absentee because of the quickening ground and will now try to get a disappointing season back on track with the blinkers he wore at Aintree reapplied in the William Hill Trophy on Cheltenham's opening day.
Two other Grand National entries met with mixed fortunes yesterday; the injury-plagued Darkness won the Newbury veterans' race, on only his third run in two years, but last year's favourite, Cloudy Lane, fell at the first in his prep at Kelso. He completed the course riderless and unscathed.