With four fences left and cruising into third place, Sprinter Sacre produced one of his trademark leaps to take second place.
The crowd roared as it looked likely the pin-up boy of racing had returned to somewhere near his best at Ascot on Saturday, but unfortunately it proved short-lived and he eventually succumbed to the new kid on the block, Dodging Bullets.
Take nothing away from the Paul Nicholls-trained winner, who has now won two grade one races and heads to the festival with a leading chance in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but the main question on every racing enthusiast’s lips is ‘where does this leave us with Sprinter Sacre?’
Second, in an above-average renewal of the Clarence House is no mean feat, but the way ‘the Black Aeroplane’ emptied between the last two fences, when two years ago he would of carried all before him, was ultimately disappointing.
Trainer Nicky Henderson and jockey Barry Geraghty gave out all the right vibes post race and confirmed his next race will be at the festival in March where the racing nation will again hold its breath and unanimously hope to see the ‘real’ Sprinter Sacre.
With so many horses now geared towards Cheltenham and wary of protecting their handicap marks for the more fruitful festival handicaps, it should pay to side with Fairy Rath over at Doncaster this weekend.
Owned by Jeremy Kyle’s wife Carla, Fairy Rath took a massive step in the right direction last time out when winning a competitive handicap at Sandown on his unfavoured soft ground and with this weekend’s conditions looking more likely to suit he could be set for back-to-back victories.
Trainer Nick Gifford is gearing Fairy Rath’s season around a likely tilt at the Topham Chase in April, but to guarantee a place in the starting line-up at Aintree, he will need to win another race and boost his handicap mark.
Sneaking in at the bottom of the weights for The Skybet Chase (formerly the Great Yorkshire Chase), it looks the perfect opportunity for Fairy Rath to gain those vital pounds before taking a mid-season break and coming back for a crack at the Topham.
His trainer Gifford confirmed the plan: “We need to get him up over 130 for a squeak of getting in the Topham, but that would be an end-of-season target because he is better on better ground.
“Last season didn’t go right and he got a niggling injury, so we had to curtail last season.
“He’s just starting to come to himself now, he’s a spring horse so winning last time at Sandown was a bonus because I didn’t think he’d handle that ground as well as he did.
“He used to be a bit free early on and not getting home on softer ground, but now he’s getting older he’s learning to settle a bit better. There was no stopping him at Sandown.”
They say history just repeats itself, so with Nicholls already laying the foundations back in 2008 when he converted his star three-mile hurdler Big Buck’s back from an unsuccessful spell chasing, it looks like a wise decision to put your faith in the master trainer doing the same again with Saphir Du Rheu this Saturday in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Big Buck’s went on to be crowned king of Cheltenham with a record four World Hurdle victories and Nicholls will be hoping the apple of his eye Saphir Du Rheu can go some way to replicating that feat.
Racing in the same, famous red, white and black silks of Andy Stewart that Big Buck’s raced in, Saphir Du Rheu in all honestly won’t have to be a world beater on Saturday with so many question marks hanging over his opponents.
Nicholls admitted it was the open nature of this year’s World Hurdle at Cheltenham that tempted him back over hurdles.
He said: “I was tempted to keep Saphir Du Rheu over fences, but as the World Hurdle looks so open this year and he is rated 165.
“Andy Stewart and I thought it might be worth trying him again over hurdles.
“As everyone knows, we did the same with Big Buck’s a few years ago after his hiccup in the Hennessy Gold Cup and he went on to dominate the staying division for years.
“We’ll see how Saphir Du Rheu gets on in the Cleeve Hurdle before deciding on future plans.”
It’s Festival Trials day at Cheltenham on Saturday, which will give us our last chance to have a look at a few potential festival heroes before the famous four days in March.
One that you certainly need to keep an eye on is Peace and Co in the first race, The JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial.
His last performance when winning at Doncaster was simply breathtaking and the rating he was given by Timeform for that race is already good enough to win most Triumph Hurdles at Cheltenham, let alone the trial race.
With that in mind he should be a certainty, but with a number of unraced juveniles in there from powerful yards, if Peace and Co is beaten then it’s very likely you’ve witnessed the second coming.
Fairy Rath, Doncaster, 3.15, Saturday, 20/1.
Saphir Du Rheu, Cheltenham, 3.35, Saturday, 3/1.
Peace and Co, Cheltenham, 12.40, 4/6.