Cue Card bounced out of his third Betfair Chase win in fine form, according to trainer Colin Tizzard.
He may turn 11 in a few weeks, but the star chaser showed his Wetherby defeat on his reappearance was a rare below-par run after he cruised to victory over 2015 Gold Cup winner Coneygree.
Having come so close to landing the £1m bonus for winning jumps racing’s Triple Crown last season when falling at Cheltenham, the dream is alive once more with the first leg in the bag.
Cue Card will now attempt to defend his crown in the 32Red King George VI Chase, for which he is 7-4 favourite with the sponsors, at Kempton on Boxing Day.
“He’s absolutely fine,” said Tizzard.
“I’ve watched it (the Betfair Chase) back a couple of times, and it was never really in any doubt.
“It’s amazing how he handles that ground now. Three years ago we might not have even run him on it.
“We always thought he wanted nice ground but he won his first Betfair on very soft ground and he’s loved it ever since.
“It’s strange. He just seems to float on it because he’s not a horse with a knee action at all.
“Paddy (Brennan) was very good on him and said he was never even thinking he would not win.
“The races pick themselves for him. Even without the bonus we knew where he’d be going at the start of the season.”
Come March, Tizzard could be in the strange situation of saddling the Gold Cup favourite Thistlecrack, while gunning for the bonus with Cue Card in the same race.
Asked what it would feel like to potentially have the first two in the betting for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, Tizzard said: “It would be lovely.”
Brennan was at a loss to explain Cue Card’s Wetherby loss, but believes his companion is a “very hard horse to beat” on soft ground.
He told his 32Red blog: “I just couldn’t get my head around his Wetherby defeat.
“All things considered, I thought he could do everything wrong that day, and still win the race, so the loss was a real head-scratcher.
“But when the ground is on the easy side of good, and softer, then Cue Card is a hard horse to beat - very hard.
“I wear my heart on my sleeve, and this was a massive day for me.
“I have won a Gold Cup and big races before but I was hoping and praying that Cue Card could deliver what he was capable of, and give us all something to look forward to for the rest of the reason.
“And he didn’t disappoint, did he?”
Ch’Tibello (5-1) could be bound for Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle after winning a tactical affair for the Betfair Price Rush Hurdle.
His trainer Dan Skelton said: “He’s going to go up in the weights now, so we’ll go to Kempton and then we might have a go at something like the Irish Champion Hurdle – which will be similar ground to today and maybe they don’t go as fast.”
Kruzhlinin (9-1) put up a sterling effort to win a gruelling Betfair Exchange ‘Fixed Brush’ Handicap Hurdle and complete a quickfire big-race double for trainer Philip Hobbs after Royal Regatta (10-1) bagged the Stella Artois 1965 Chase at Ascot.
The Hobbs team added another at Haydock when Three Faces West (3-1) made it a treble on the day for champion jockey Richard Johnson, who had ridden Coneygree in the big one.
Back at Ascot and former Champion Chase hero Sire De Grugy (8-1) warmed the hearts of jumps fans as he defied top weight in the Shawbrook Handicap Chase to show he is far from being a back number.
The Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown, which he won in 2013 and 2015, is the next likely port of call for Gary Moore’s still-classy 10-year-old.
Moore said: “It rates as one of his best performances. He will go for the Tingle Creek as long as he comes out of this OK.”
Yanworth was made to work hard to score on his reappearance in the Coral Hurdle.
Alan King’s charge was second in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, and travelled well in the early stages, but the 4-5 shot was pushed all the way by Lil Rockerfeller, who was only beaten by three-quarters of a length.
King said: “It is a huge relief. He has not been on the grass and one or two of our proper jump horses in the last week or two have just been found out.”