DARYL JACOB’S personal satisfaction was plain to see after the gallant grey Bristol De Mai confounded the sceptics to win a second successive Betfair Chase.
He had just completed his last media interview at Haydock and a clearly emotional rider was walking back to the weighing room when he did a small first pump with his right hand before looking to the heavens in thanks.
Not only had his horse joined the greats by winning back-to-back renewals of this Grade One race, but Bristol De Mai is the only horse eligible for a £1m bonus if the victor goes on to win Kempton’s King George Chase next month and also the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March.
This remains a tall order. Bristol De Mai, trained to perfection by Nigel Twiston-Davies who nearly withdrew the horse because the ground was too quick for his liking, is now unbeaten from four starts at Haydock and is invariably at his best early on in the campaign and on flat tracks like this. Yet, while Jacob’s mount has questions to answer, the same also applies to his four high-profile rivals after this extended three-mile race lived up to the hype.
With Bristol De Mai appearing to jump for fun at the head of the field, Gold Cup winner Native River – the eventual second – was flat out on quicker than ideal going.
Of the rest, comeback horse Thistlecrack was an eyecatching third – he could have been closer to the front two with a more crisp round of jumping – while Clan Des Obeaux, a rising star, was a creditable fourth.
The big disappointment was Nicky Henderson’s Might Bite – last season’s King George winner and Gold Cup runner-up was a distant last in a race where conditions appeared to be ideal.
Post-race explanations varied from a disrupted preparation because Henderson has been unable to gallop his string on grass due to the dry weather to Might Bite being unsuited by Haydock’s fences which were bigger, and stiffer, than normal after being rebuilt over the summer.
Yet this should not detract from the performance of Bristol De Mai in a race which had been billed as a match between Native River and Might Bite.
Even though the winning margin was four lengths, compared to 57 lengths 12 months ago on bottomless ground that was so much to Bristol De Mai’s liking, this was arguably a better performance because of the quality of the opposition.
“He’s unbelievable. Everybody was building this up as a two-horse race, but our camp had different ideas,” said an elated Jacob who said the decision to bypass Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase was the correct one.
“We’ve believed in this horse a long time. This horse has won a Grade One every year he’s been over here. We’ve nurtured him. That was a big moment. He’s a great horse. It obviously was a disadvantage it not being soft ground, but at this track, there’s something about it he just loves and he feels a lot better.
“They were big fences and took some jumping. I got him into a lovely rhythm. He jumped super and you needed to jump today to win and that’s exactly what this lad did.”
This view was shared by the aforementioned Twiston-Davies who relished being written off in advance. “He’s one of the real top horses in the country and he grinds them down and wins by jumping well and galloping,” said the victorious trainer.
“He wins everywhere when he’s right. He’s difficult to keep right. First and second time out last season he was superb, then he started getting his aches and pains and taking a few lame steps. Hopefully second time out this year will be at Kempton and we’ll give them a hard time there.
“We don’t mind being the underdog. We were discussing on the way up here how it reminded us of Imperial Commander taking on Kauto Star and Denman in the Gold Cup.
“We were totally the underdog and then you go and stuff them like that! I don’t think it’s just because it’s Haydock – he’s just brilliant first time out.”
As for Native River and Thistlecrack, their trainer Colin Tizzard was delighted with both runs and suggested that they could both line up in the King George. He also had no qualms with the size of the Haydock fences where seven out of 25 horses either fell, or unseated their rider, in the four chases on the card.
Yet, while racecourse officials say they will listen to feedback from jockeys, Sue and Harvey Smith’s Vintage Clouds put down a marker for the Grand National by winning the finale.
After just missing the cut for this year’s National, the win – and rise in the handicap – virtually guarantees the Danny Cook-ridden grey a place in the 40-runner line up next April.
“He’s done nothing but improve from year to year with experience,” said Cook, who was delighted with the quality of his horse’s jumping. “I’m sure he will come on for the run.”