FOREST Bihan upset two accomplished Grade One winners with a clear-cut victory in the Monet’s Garden Old Roan Chase at Aintree – the feature event at the Grand National venue.
A field of five runners went to post for the Liverpool feature, with much of the pre-race discussion focusing on an intriguing clash between last year’s winner Frodon and Amy Murphy’s stable star Kalashnikov.
The Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon went on to enjoy a remarkable campaign following his victory of 12 months ago, also landing the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup and the Cotswold Chase before completing a Cheltenham hat-trick in a memorable Ryanair Chase at the Festival.
However, conceding upwards of a stone all round, he was second best in the market on his return to Merseyside with Kalashnikov the favourite on his first start since landing a Grade One over the course and distance in early April.
Frodon and his regular partner Bryony Frost soon adopted their customary role at the head of affairs, but some sticky leaps allowed the chasing pack to keep tabs on him and first Kalashnikov and then Forest Bihan moved into his wing mirrors before the home turn.
With all the fences in the home straight omitted due to low sun, Frodon did his best to keep his nose in front, but was ultimately unable to resist the pair in behind – and it was Malton trainer Brian Ellison’s Forest Bihan who showed the smarter change of gear to claim top honours by a shade under three lengths in the hands of Brian Hughes.
Kalashnikov was a clear second, with Frodon a further 12 lengths away in third.
In-form Ellison said: “I’m over the moon with him. Brian gave him a great ride and everything went well.
“We ran him at Kelso a few weeks ago (finishing third) and he improved loads for that. He hadn’t won over two-and-a-half (miles) before, but Brian said the ground was pretty soft today and he seemed to stay well, so he’ll definitely get it on good ground.”
Paddy Power make Forest Bihan a 20-1 chance for next month’s BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham.
Ellison added: “I hadn’t really thought beyond today, to be honest, as this was the plan.
“That (Cheltenham) could be a possibility, but I’ll speak to (owner) Phil (Martin) and see what he thinks.”
Ellison and Martin are due to team up next Saturday at Wetherby when Definitly Red defends his Charlie Hall Chase title. Entries close at 1pm today – but part of the back straight remains under water after heavy rain. However, course officials are hoping to be raceable by the middle of the week.
Aidan O’Brien expects to saddle a strong team in the rescheduled Vertem Futurity Trophy at Newcastle on Friday.
The Ballydoyle handler has trained nine previous winners of the final Group One race of the British Flat season – leaving him just one short of the record set by the late Sir Henry Cecil.
He was responsible for five of the six declared runners for this year’s renewal, but a waterlogged track at Doncaster forced the cancellation of the card, and the race will now be run during a twilight fixture at Gosforth Park.
Asked whether he intends to run the same five horses in what will be the first Group One race to take place on an all-weather surface in Britain, O’Brien told Racing TV’s Luck On Sunday programme: “That’s what we’re thinking at the moment.
“I think it’ll be fine. Obviously Newcastle is a very good track and if the horses are well we’ll look forward to running them there.”
The O’Brien quintet originally declared was headed by Mogul, who was set to go off a red-hot favourite following an impressive Group Two triumph at Leopardstown last month.
He was joined by the well-regarded Innisfree – a winner at the Galway Festival before providing his trainer with a remarkable 19th success in the Beresford Stakes at the Curragh – as well as Iberia, Louisiana and Royal County Down.
The only horse declared to take on the Ballydoyle battalion was the Andrew Balding-trained Kameko, but that could now change as although the original entries will stand, it has also been reopened for new contenders.
The one-mile contest will have a total prize fund of £200,000.
It promises to be a busy weekend for the O’Brien team, with another formidable squad being prepared for the two-day Breeders’ Cup meeting on Friday and Saturday.
Magical (Filly & Mare Turf), Anthony Van Dyck (Turf) and Circus Maximus (Mile) are among those being prepared for the trip across the Atlantic and O’Brien is pleased with their condition.
Ramses De Teillee set up a shot at some big targets back over fences, by claiming a four-and-a-half-length victory in the Randox Health Novices’ Hurdle at Chelenham under Tom Scudamore.
Trainer David Pipe said of the winner: “It was a prep run today, before going over the bigger obstacles.
“We wanted to make use of his novice status over hurdles at some point, and I’m sure he will run over hurdles again this season.
“Races like the Welsh National, Becher Chase and the three-mile-three handicap here at the next meeting are for him.”
Watching videos of Ruby Walsh riding around Cheltenham paid dividends for Harry Cobden as Quel Destin left his odds-on defeat on the Flat at Bath 10 days ago well behind him when taking the Masterson Holdings Hurdle by three-quarters of a length.
Nicholls said: “We planned to do that (go wide) and pick that better ground. Ruby (Walsh) used to do that and I’ve been getting him to look back at some of those old videos.
“Ruby used to ride round here. He used to go as wide as you like and when the ground is like that, you have nothing to lose.”
Of last season’s Triumph Hurdle fifth, he added: “I thought it might be a tough task, but he loves that ground.”