For the majority here yesterday, the feel good factor stood in the winners' circle after the Victor Chandler Chase, in the form of the dark, handsome gelding Somersby. His victory in the Grade 1 contest was a return to the big-time for his trainer Henrietta Knight, so long on the sidelines since the heady days of Best Mate, and a particularly welcome boost after the health problems experienced by her personal and professional partner Terry Biddlecombe.
And no less worthy of inclusion in the circle of happiness surrounding Knight and Biddlecombe, given warm appreciation on a chill afternoon by the rather sparse crowd, were Somersby – so often the bridesmaid in top-level races, including this one a year ago – and his rider Dominic Elsworth, who at one point missed 14 months' racing after a serious head injury.
Somersby, previously seen when fourth behind Kauto Star in the three-mile King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, wore concentration-aiding cheekpieces for the first time and stayed on gamely after the last fence to overhaul Finian's Rainbow for a length and a quarter success. The novice Al Ferof, stepping into senior company for the first time, took third spot, nearly four lengths adrift.
"He travelled smoothly the whole way," said Elsworth of Camilla Radford's eight-year-old, "and jumped well, didn't lose any ground in the air at all. They did quicken away from me a bit after the third-last, but I knew he'd stay on at the end."
It was, remarkably, Wantage-based Knight's first Grade 1 success since El Vaquero won the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase at Sandown seven years ago, though it was only by a nose that Somersby failed here against Master Minded. "I was slightly worried about pulling him back to two miles and a furlong," she said, "but he does love this course and ran such a good race here a year ago, and I thought it was worth having another go. I think the cheek pieces helped his jumping, it looked very slick. Today was a day when everything went just right."
Somersby's next target will be a step back up in trip to the two and a half miles of the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, where Al Ferof will revert to novice company. "That was a brilliant trial for the Arkle Trophy," said the young grey's trainer, Paul Nicholls. "You can't beat experience like that. Winning another novice chase at 1-4 would have taught him nothing."
It was a good day for Knight, for Nicholls, for Alan King, whose juvenile hurdler Balder Succes and World Hurdle possible Smad Place enhanced their Cheltenham prospects, and, at Haydock, for Donald McCain, who reached a century for the season with a four-timer from Cinders And Ashes, Our Mick, Reindeer Dippin and Real Milan. But it was definitely one to forget for Nicky Henderson, even before the defeat of his Champion Chase contender Finian's Rainbow, who had looked all over the Victor Chandler winner going to the final obstacle. His Berkshire yard's Spirit Son, who had been third favourite for the ChampionHurdle, was ruled out of the Festival after developing a problem with his off-foreleg on Thursday.
The talented but fragile six-year-old, who runs in the same Michael Buckley colours as Finian's Rainbow, had not done so since last season, having met with a setback during the autumn. "This is something different," said a frustrated Henderson, who also has 2010 winner Binocular and upwardly-mobile five-year-old Grandouet, the second favourite, bound for the Champion Hurdle, "and we'll have to take things carefully with him. He may be out for the rest of the season but that's irrelevant; if you miss even two weeks at this time of year you're out of the Cheltenham ball park. And I'd rather start again next season with a horse in one piece than take a chance and end up missing this year and next as well."
The betting bush telegraph had signalled Spirit Son's Cheltenham defection before the trainer's confirmation; the horse was a conspicuous market drifter from Friday evening. "It was all over the world before I could tell anyone," added Henderson. "But that is the way of things now and where there is money to be made people will take advantage of a situation."
The longest price now available for reigning champion Hurricane Fly, due to start a belated defence at Leopardstown a week today, is 2-1.