Thomas hails great grey Nacarat

NICOLAUS Silver, Desert Orchid, One Man and, more recently, Monet's Garden – steeplechasing enthusiasts have always had a special affinity with bold, front-running greys who jump for fun.

Now Nacarat can be added to that distinguished list after becoming the runaway winner of Wetherby's 100,000 bet 365 Charlie Hall Chase with a jumping performance that drew worthy comparison with past 'grey greats'.

Winnerless since coming to prominence 18 months ago when winning the Racing Post Trophy, Tom George's stable star is now a genuine contender for the King George VI Chase where Kauto Star will attempt to win the Boxing Day feature for an unprecedented fifth time.

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Yet this was not just about 6-1 chance Nacarat returning to form after successful treatment for a longstanding shoulder injury. It also signalled winning jockey Sam Thomas's re-emergence following two years of racing torment.

Four years ago, he was one of racing's rising stars when he had his first major ride for champion trainer Paul Nicholls in the corresponding race (he was second on Neptune Collonges to Our Vic).

But, after his iconic Gold Cup victory aboard the imperious Denman in 2008, his career stuttered – a number of high-profile falls did not help – and the winners (and rides) dried up.

At times, he has cut a forlorn figure, forced to ride outsiders rather than the quality horses that helped to establish his reputation as a pre-eminent horseman, particularly over the larger obstacles.

It was, therefore, ironic that the Nicholls-trained favourite The Tother One, the mount of Ruby Walsh, was second to Nacarat with Deep Purple, last year's winner, third, and the enduring Ollie Magern fourth. It wasn't lost on Thomas, or those supporters who have remained loyal to him through the dark days.

"I've had a quiet week and it makes it a bit more special to have a good winner at the weekend.

"I'm delighted for the owners, they are very loyal and I have paid them back," said a beaming Thomas in the winner's enclosure.

"He's done it very, very well – these are the days every jockey dreams of."

Having set a searching gallop for the whole of the three-mile Grade Two contest together with the veteran Ollie Magern, Nacarat was travelling so well turning for home that the race was over as a contest.

Even a minor blunder three out made no difference to the processional nature of the victory over a high-class eight-runner field that was testament to the track improvements at Wetherby following deserved criticism about the ground, and which saw the racecourse executive rewarded with a bumper crowd.

"The King George now has to be high on his list of targets," said Gloucestershire-based George who was alluding to his horse's impressive record at Kempton where he won the Racing Post Trophy in 2009.

"We'll have to improve to get the better of Kauto, but without him I think we'd have been a good winner of the race last year."

Earlier an emotional Rhys Flint – a Northern Racing College graduate – held back the tears as his old friend Fair Along struck gold for the second consecutive year in the three-mile John Smith's Hurdle.

The 6-1 frontrunner fought off Kay Aramis, a past Cheltenham Festival winner, in the straight to score by a length and a quarter. As he dismounted his hero, Flint tenderly kissed the horse's forehead in appreciation. It was a tear-jerking moment that illustrated racing's respect for its seasoned campaigners.

"I've been waiting all summer to ride this horse. He tried his little heart out," said Flint.

"He's one of the best jumpers I've ridden and he's the horse that really got my career going," he said.

Yet, while the crowd, including former top trainer Jenny Pitman, was warmed by old favourites like Nacarat and Fair Along, another Wetherby specialist – Graham Lee – took the riding honours with an eyecatching treble.

Winner of the mares hurdle aboard Donald McCain's progressive hurdler Alegralil, he also won on Malcolm Jefferson's chasing debutant Gilbarry and David O'Meara's Viva Colonia in the finale, the latter two horses trained in Malton and well-supported by punters on a day when Wetherby Racecouse, Nacarat and Sam Thomas all re-affirmed past reputations.