The search for something to challenge Long Run for top chasing honours this season, which began in earnest when Weird Al and Time For Rupert left their rivals behind at Wetherby on Saturday, continued yesterday at Kempton, with a long-overdue victory for the talented Somersby, and will do so again this afternoon at Exeter, where Arkle Trophy hero Captain Chris is among a clutch of last term's talented novices returning to action.
No horse was welcomed more warmly into the winner's circle yesterday than Somersby, who provided a timely boost for his trainer Henrietta Knight and her partner Terry Biddlecombe, currently recovering from a stroke. It was the near-black gelding's first success for nearly two years and only his fifth in all, a record that belies his talent.
Somersby, owned by Camilla Radford, plied his trade as a two-miler last term and came closest to a win when he ran Master Minded to a short-head in the Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot. Yesterday's step up to two and a half miles clearly suited him well and he has a further increase in distance pencilled in, the three miles of the King George VI Chase back at the Sunbury track next month. He is rated at 20-1 shot for the Boxing Day feature.
With Dominic Elsworth in his saddle, the seven-year-old shadowed Hennessy Gold Cup-bound Aiteen Thirtythree until the home straight, where his slicker technique through the air and superior speed on the ground took him smoothly three lengths clear.
"I was very pleased with the way he jumped," said Knight. "Last season he always seemed to make one error. Today he jumped with much more confidence and I'm sure he'll stay three miles. He's much stronger this year, physically and mentally. I think he's finally grown up."
This afternoon's Haldon Gold Cup has a fine pedigree, and one Knight actually knows well, having won it with Best Mate, Edredon Bleu and Impek. Since Best Mate's success 10 years ago, the roll of honour also includes talents such as Azertyuiop, Monkerhostin and, two years ago, Planet Of Sound.
The two and a quarter miler, with a purse of £60,000 the richest race run in Devon during the season, has today attracted a select field of seven, including Planet Of Sound's Philip Hobbs stablemate Captain Chris (see Turf Account, right), currently vying for second favouritism with Master Minded for the King George.
Racegoers will also be treated to the eagerly-awaited chasing debut of another Hobbs inmate, the high-class hurdler Menorah, and, as a bonus, some of Paul Nicholls' celebrities, including Kauto Star and Big Bucks, will gallop on the course after racing.
Chris McGrath's nap
Captain Chris (2.50 Exeter) Ended last season as a progressive dual Grade One winner and is in good shape to pick up the thread.
Jump City (2.20 Exeter) Likely to have progressed physically during the close season.
One to watch
Cantlow (Paul Webber) travelled notably well at Wetherby on Saturday before blowing up and fading to a tired fourth.
Where the money's going
Boylesports have cut Aiteen Thirtythree to 8-1 favourite for the Hennessy Gold Cup after his second place at Kempton yesterday.