Conti is back on track for King George defence

CRISIS? What crisis? Paul Nicholls has every reason to say ‘I told you so’ after stable star Silviniaco Conti put his Wetherby disappointment behind him and galloped to a resolute victory in Haydock’s Grade One Betfair Chase.

Silviniaco Conti, ridden by Noel Fehily, pulls away from Menorah, ridden by Richard Johnson, to win Haydocks Betfair Chase. Picture: PA

The classy chaser is back on track to defend his William Hill King George VI Chase title at Kempton on Boxing Day when his likely rivals are set to include stablemate Al Ferof, who was still good enough to win the Amlin 1965 Chase at Ascot despite not being fully wound up.

After a slowish start to the 2014-15 National Hunt campaign by the exacting standards set by Nicholls, who was winning the Betfair Chase for a sixth time in 10 years, it is ironic that the one person who was least worried of all was the most important individual of all – the reigning champion trainer.

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He said Silviniaco Conti would improve significantly for his reappearance in Wetherby’s bet365 Charlie Hall Chase when the gelding finished a weary fifth to Menorah and he was proved to be right.

Softer ground, and a greater test of stamina on Merseyside, played to the chaser’s strengths as he took up the running on the second circuit from 2013 winner Cue Card and had enough in reserve to repel the gutsy Menorah, who was not suited by conditions, and Dynaste, who tired markedly in the home straight.

The disappointment of the race was Cue Card, who could only finish fourth. He has not been the same horse since a pelvic injury at the turn of the year. Jonjo O’Neill’s Taquin Du Seuil was also expected to put up a big challenge but he threw away any chance with some sloppy jumping and was pulled up.

Silviniaco Conti was ridden by Noel Fehily, who said: “It’s another master-class training performance by Paul Nicholls. He’s a hell of a good horse. He’s an unbelievable stayer.”

As for Nicholls, he punched the air in celebration as his warrior crossed the winning line and still maintains that Silviniaco Conti has the class to win a Cheltenham Gold Cup despite falling in 2013 and then fading on the run-in last March.

A trainer who wears his heart on the sleeve, the man who master-minded the careers of icons like Kauto Star and Denman declared: “When he’s right, he’s probably the best in the country. When I saw he had his ears pricked today I knew they wouldn’t get past him.

“There was no point in Silviniaco being 100 per cent at Wetherby, it served its purpose but he got left at the third-last.”

As for the vanquished, the placed horses could all be Kempton-bound. Philip Hobbs said Menorah had “run the race of his life”; David Pipe suggested the ground had stretched Dynaste’s stamina while Colin Tizzard had no excuses for Cue Card and ventured: “We’ve no god-given right to win all of these championship races.”

Not only will they face a formidable foe in Silviniaco Conti, but Al Ferof – the 2012 Paddy Power Gold Cup winner – could be a totally different proposition after apparently successful treatment for multiple ulcers.

After beating the admirable Somersby at Ascot, owner John Hales said: “Now you can see the difference. He was giving 11lb –that was impressive. That wasn’t just a win – that was an impressive win.”

Champion Hurdle favourite Faugheen maintained his unbeaten record and hardly came out of a canter to land the Grade Two Coral Hurdle at the Berkshire track for Ruby Walsh and Ireland’s champion trainer Willie Mullins.

However, this was Faugheen’s first race out of novice company and Walsh says his mount will have to keep improving before he can challenge the likes of The New One who put up a crisper performance to land the inaugural running of the Betfair Price Rush Hurdle at Haydock for the father and son team of Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies.

“Not a bad trainer,” said the winning jockey when asked to pay tribute to his father. “I’m looking for a better jockey!” retorted the trainer.

They both know The New One will be seen to better effect on quicker ground.

There was a particularly heartwarming story when young conditional Lizzie Kelly rode Aubusson to victory in the Betfair “This Is Play” “Fixed Brush” Handicap Hurdle – a race won previously by the likes of Grands Crus and Dynaste.

The horse is owned by the jockey’s mother, Jane Williams, who led Aubusson into an emotional winner’s enclosure and trained by the rider’s stepfather Nick,

“Easy-peasy,” said Kelly who revealed that the bold tactics were only decided after a lengthy family conference. “We race by committee so we all have a bit of an input.”

From a Yorkshire perspective, the most eye-catching performer was Sue Smith’s 10-year-old De Boitron, who returned from a 315-day lay-off to finish a creditable second to Nicky Henderson’s much touted Vasco Du Ronceray in the opening handicap hurdle.

De Boitron’s first run over hurdles for five years, the runner-up was given a master-class by Ryan Mania, who had walked the course to identify the better ground. De Boitron should resume steeplechasing provided he shows no ill-effects from his comeback.