as a final trial for the Champion Hurdle, Sam Twiston-Davies had every reason to look pensive as he returned to the Haydock winner’s enclosure on The New One.
His horse had hated the bottomless ground on Merseyside, further softened by intermittent snow, sleet and hail showers. He jumped to the right, ploughed through the third last and conceded the initiative to the gallant Bertimont at the final flight.
It was not a performance to frighten the formidable Irish challenge for Cheltenham’s most celebrated hurdle race in seven weeks’ time.
But let it be remembered that The New One did still win the StanJames.com Champion Hurdle Trial, converting a two-and-a-half length deficit at the last into a winning margin of just over two lengths as the horse responded courageously to his young jockey’s urgings.
And, after Twiston-Davies had reassured glum-looking connections, he was able to draw on the positives – just as Nicky Henderson was doing at Ascot after superstar steeplechaser Sprinter Sacre’s own reverse.
“Everything went wrong, but he still managed to pull it out of the fire. It is why he is such a superstar,” said the mud-splattered 22-year-old.
“He will be 100 times better come the Champion Hurdle. Heavy ground, it is really hard work to jump out of it and he got into some bad old habits at his obstacles. I have never seen everyone so sad after a win ... we have got a good trainer and we will get him better.”
The trainer is the jockey’s redoubtable father Nigel who suggested that The New One was in a no-win situation because the quality of the race would have been quibbled if his stable star had won with his head in his chest.
Twiston-Davies was also encouraged by his horse’s battling qualities as the 1-6 odds-on favourite extended his winning sequence this season to four races.
“It won’t do him any harm at all and he did battle. I wouldn’t be worried about anything at all,” added the no-nonsense handler.
In contrast to the Twiston-Davies team, jockey Jonathan England could not contain his euphoria after leading from start to finish on Mwaleshi to win the 888 Graduation Chase.
This was the conditional rider’s fifth win on the horse, owned and trained by Sue and Harvey Smith, and the fact it was broadcast by Channel Four Racing will only help Guiseley-based England to secure more opportunities.
“An absolute superstar,” said an animated England as he returned to the winner’s enclosure.
“He’s just a pony, a pony, but he has the heart of a lion. He’s a real favourite of mine.”
These, said England, are the type of horses who give so much pleasure but rarely make the headlines in their own right.
“A joy to ride,” he added enthusiastically.
Mwaleshi’s win completed a double for the Smith stable after Wakanda had made all the running to win the Grade Two CE Facilities Novices’ Chase under Danny Cook.
This race was won 12 months previously by Gold Cup prospect Taquin du Seuil, but connections will almost certainly bypass this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
It was Cook’s fifth win from seven starts for Smith. He also has a perfect two-from-two record since returning to the saddle from a broken forearm.
But the jockey, and showjumping legend Smith, are unlikely to be in the running for knighthoods from the Queen – Wakanda’s occasional wayward leaps badly hampered Her Majesty’s Close Touch in the home straight.
“He’s a tough horse and kept finding more,” said Cook who is on course for a career-best season in his first year with agent Bruce Jeffrey.
Assistant trainer Ryan Clavin was also upbeat. “He’s a lovely project. Hopefully there is a big race in him.”
Meanwhile, weighing-room veteran Brian Harding reached a personal best of 40 winners in a season when bringing home Scottish National possible Samstown in a slog for the Peter Marsh Chase, with the Smith-trained Vintage Star third and stablemate No Planning a very weary fifth.
Saltburn jockey James Reveley’s trip to France paid off when he won the €72,000 first prize in the Grand Prix de Pau yesterday courtesy of Vent Sombre.