Ned Stark lays his claim on the Festival crown

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Ned Stark may have earned himself a place among Alan King’s Cheltenham Festival squad after toughing it out in the totepool Towton Novices’ Chase at Wetherby.

The seven-year-old was successful on his first two starts over fences in novice handicaps at Huntingdon and Newbury, but failed to get competitive when fourth behind the exciting Ptit Zig in the ‘Dipper’ at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.

An 11-4 chance for another Grade Two event in West Yorkshire, Ned Stark was being pushed along leaving the back straight, but responded to Denis O’Regan’s urgings to chase down the bold-jumping pacesetter Straidnahanna.

As the latter began to falter, 9-4 favourite Kaki De La Pree emerged as the main threat to King’s charge, but he was unable to get past as Ned Stark clung on by a neck.

The seven-year-old holds an entry in the RSA Chase at Prestbury Park in March, but connections could also consider handicap options, depending on the assessor’s verdict.

King was at Sandown, from where he said: “I thought we were in a bit of trouble leaving the back, but he’s seen it out really well and I’m delighted with him. It’s great to win a Towton again.

“I haven’t spoken to any of the guys on track yet, so we’ll get him home and see how he is and then make a plan.

“We’ll see what the handicapper does. I don’t think he can hammer him as he didn’t win by far and I think they were all much of a muchness.

“The three-mile handicap (at Cheltenham) might be a possible, but we’ll see. It’s just nice to get this out of the way.”

O’Regan believes it could be next season before Ned Stark realises his full potential.

“He’s a really nice young horse, he’s progressing well,” said the jockey. “I think the experience of Cheltenham last time stood him well today, especially in the heat of the battle.

“I went looking for the better ground and he’s a horse that needs a bit of time.”

Another horse with Festival aspirations is the Richard Lee-trained Kylemore Lough after he readily completed a hat-trick as the 1-4 favourite for the Millionaire Maker Novices’ Hurdle.

Charlie Poste’s mount came home with 25 lengths in hand over River Bollin, and Lee believes the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle is a realistic target.

“We have entered him at Cheltenham. He’s in the two-and-a-half-miler (Neptune) and the three-miler (Albert Bartlett). After that performance, I think the three-mile race is probably more likely,” said Lee.

“Whether he’s good enough for that, I don’t know, but he’s three from three and you’ve got to think about Cheltenham.

“Whether he’ll run again before then, I’m not sure. We’ve got six weeks, so we’ll see. He isn’t a horse you’d want to run up light.

“He eats like an elephant! He’d eat you out of house and home if you let him.”

Midnight Belle (6-1) emerged victorious after a thrilling climax to the totescoop6 Updates At totepoolliveinfo.com Handicap Chase, edging out Granville Island by a head in the hands of Felix de Giles.

Winning trainer Tom Symonds said: “She absolutely loves a fight and that’s seven wins she’s got now. She’s awesome. She’s a good mare, but she won’t handle good ground. She does need it soft.

“Plans are fluid and we’ll go wherever the ground suits.”

Granville Island’s rider Jason Maguire was found guilty of careless riding by the stewards, picking up a two-day (February 15 and 16) suspension.

Join The Clan (7-2) benefited from a super-cool ride from Patrick Cowley to land the totetrifecta Pick The 1, 2, 3 Handicap Hurdle.

It was just a second career winner for the 19-year-old rider, with his first coming aboard the Jonjo O’Neill-trained runner at Warwick three weeks ago.

Cowley said: “I’ve been with Jonjo three years and this horse has been very good to me, so it’s great.”

Bobs Lady Tamure landed the Wilmot-Smith Memorial Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle for trainer Maurice Barnes and jockey Stephen Mulqueen.

“She likes this ground, she’s game and she did it nicely,” said Barnes. “She’s very consistent and I think she’s still improving.”

Jill Dawson’s Palypso De Creek won the Racing UK Anywhere Open Hunters’ Chase for the third year on the bounce under Claire Hart.

Sue Smith’s Vintage Clouds sent favourite-backers home happy by comfortably obliging as the 2-1 market leader under Danny Cook in the concluding June Berry Memorial Standard Flat Race.

Gitane Du Berlais propelled herself into the reckoning for the JLT Novices’ Chase when taking the Betfred TV Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase by eight lengths from top English prospect Irish Saint.

On only her second try over fences, the mare, who was in receipt of 11lb from her four rivals, was almost foot-perfect and drew readily clear approaching the final fence from the joint 15-8 favourite.

Champagne West, the other market leader, was going well enough when he came to grief five out.

Victory sparked a treble on the day for jockey Daryl Jabob, who later stuck with Aigle De La See and Le Reve.