PAUL Nicholls has always regarded Silviniaco Conti as a potential Gold Cup winner since this top chaser came to prominence at Wetherby 14 months ago and his judgment was vindicated when steeplechasing’s rising star won a dramatic William Hill King George VI Chase.
The likable Cue Card appeared to have this three-mile championship race at his mercy two out when he pulled clear, but the complexion of this contest changed dramatically when jockey Joe Tizzard looked over his right shoulder to check on the pursuers.
As the Betfair Chase winner started running on empty after dictating the pace from the start, Silviniaco Conti – the winner of Wetherby’s feature Charlie Hall Chase in 2012 – pounced and won convincingly under Noel Fehily, who is in the form of his life towards the twilight of a career that has been cruelly curtailed by too many injuries.
He had, ironically, been due to ride the legendary Kauto Star, a five-time King George hero for Nicholls, in the 2010 renewal before his injury jinx struck and it is testament to his perseverance that he never lost faith in his own abilities as a horseman.
Even though he rides as a freelance, and won the 2012 Champion Hurdle on Rock On Ruby, Nicholls indicated that Fehily will keep the ride when Silviniaco Conti lines up in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup in March.
He is now 4-1 favourite for jump racing’s blue riband contest after a compelling race that also broke a number of reputations in the Kempton chill.
This was a tactical masterpiece by Fehily. He raced upsides the pacesetting Cue Card, never allowing Tizzard a chance to give his horse a breather, with Long Run – twice a King George winner – on the outer.
Both Riverside Theatre and Champion Court unseated their respective riders at the fifth and David Pipe’s grey Dynaste, the big disappointment of the race, was soon in trouble on the second circuit; this was a lacklustre run from a horse that had been second to Cue Card at Haydock.
Dynaste’s dispiriting run was reflected by Long Run who lost his prominent position on the second circuit before parting company with Sam Waley-Cohen at the last when well-beaten.
This run may convince connections to target the Crabbies Grand National, but the 2011 Gold Cup winner has not been the force of old and this was his third poor run from three starts this season. Retirement maybe the kindest option.
Contrast this with Cue Card who could drop back to two miles and five furlongs for the Ryanair Chase, a race that he spectacularly won at this year’s National Hunt Festival, while Silviniaco Conti is a worthy favourite for the Gold Cup following a classy win from Cue Card and Al Ferof, the 2012 Paddy Power winner, who was third.
Yet Nicholls, who was landing a record eighth King George, revealed that Silviniaco Conti had not been fully wound up for the Betfair Chase – and that the horse was still in the mix when parting company with Ruby Walsh in this year’s Gold Cup at the third last.
“That’s brilliant. I knew if I had him at his best at Haydock he wouldn’t win (yesterday),” said Nicholls, who now has a £400,000 plus lead over Jonjo O’Neill and Nicky Henderson as he attempts to regain his trainer’s title at the first attempt.
“Sometimes you win these races with a horse like him, that if you’d have got to the bottom of him at Haydock he wouldn’t have won.
“It was heavy that day, the run brought him on enormously and I knew he’d stay. I said to Noel to make plenty of use of him.
“Kempton is not an ideal track for him as he jumps a bit out to the left, but he stays forever. All he does is stay, as you saw (at Kempton). Better ground and a bit further will suit him well.
“(Yesterday) was his target – last year the targets were the Charlie Hall and the Betfair. This year was a bit different, to come here and then go for the Gold Cup.
“You have to be a true stayer to win round here and though Cue Card won round Haydock it was different ground. He had a soft lead and I didn’t want that to happen.
“It’s great to win this race with something different following Kauto Star and two with See More Business. I thought we had a great chance in last season’s Gold Cup, but it didn’t happen.”
Fehily explained the positivity behind his tenacious tactics by saying of his equine hero: “He is an out-and out stayer and it suits him being ridden like that. The further he goes, the better he goes,
“He’s a funny horse – when you’re riding him out in the morning, you don’t think you could win a modest 0-120 race on him, and then he comes alive.
“I was slow over three out and I thought Joe had got away from me, but this horse is as tough as nails and he’s a very good horse.
“This is a different track to Haydock and I knew my horse would be fitter. Paul has done a great job. It was brilliant. I’ve not ridden a Gold Cup winner, but I hope he’s a Gold Cup horse. This is unbelievable.”
A great day’s racing saw My Tent Or Yours collar The New One on the run-in to claim a thrilling renewal of the williamill.com Christmas Hurdle.
The New One, who had taken it up a fair way from home, just had the upper hand coming to the final flight, but made a bad mistake, with Sam Twiston-Davies briefly losing an iron.
That allowed AP McCoy, on the Nicky Henderson-trained six-year-old, to get the better of the favourite on the dash to the line and take the Champion Hurdle rehearsal by half a length.
McCoy said: “It was very pleasing. He pulled hard off a steady enough gallop on heavy ground. He had every chance to fold up because he was so keen, but he really toughed it out.
“When I really needed one at the last, he delivered. He’s improved since Newcastle when winning the Fighting Fifth Hurdle and it was a much better performance.
“I was very impressed with the horse, he has a great will to win. He couldn’t go for the Champion Hurdle if he hadn’t beaten The New One round here.
“He has definitely improved from Newcastle, but he needs to step up a little again and hopefully he can.”
That said, Twiston-Davies is hopeful that The New One will reverse the form at Cheltenham where the uphill finish will better suit his horse.
Steeplechasing superstar Sprinter Sacre is due to face just five rivals, including the improving Sire De Grugy, when he makes his seasonal reappearance in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton today.