Whether Defi du Seuil can win the Champion Chase at Cheltenham in March remains to be seen, but the Philip Hobbs-trained six-year-old certainly put himself in contention for major honours this season, beating Un De Sceaux by a neck in a thrilling Betfair Tingle Creek at Sandown.
There are still pieces of the two-mile jigsaw missing. We have no idea whether Altor, the current champion, will return to the division, and Willie Mullins is waiting until Christmas to unleash Chacun Pour Soi, who beat Defi du Seuil at Punchestown.
But what must stand Defi Du Seuil in good stead for a crack at the two-mile title in March is that in two visits to the festival he has come away with a Triumph Hurdle and a JLT Chase.
On Saturday, in a very fast run race given the conditions, he jumped past the 11-year-old 2016 winner of this race Un de Sceaux at the last and looked set for a comfortable victory. But 100 yards out he began to tread water under Barry Geraghty and Un De Sceaux scented a second chance as Waiting Patiently also stormed up the outside.
“He just pulled up in the last 50 yards,” said Geraghty, who made clear his views about his future. “But he’s a class act. He’s not the biggest but he’s a real terrier. Nothing’s been discussed, but he’s just won a Grade One over two miles.”
Hobbs said: “He kept going, which we know he does, but it was a very, very long run-in [to watch]. I thought he’d win it quite well at the last. He jumped beautifully and Barry thinks he’ll have learned a bit more going that pace against Grade One horses. He’s different from a lot of Triumph Hurdle winners because he didn’t have a lot of racing on the Flat as a young horse.”
“I suppose the obvious race for him now is the Clarence House at Ascot in January. The opposition [at Cheltenham] will be important as well, and what runs in the races we might pinpoint.”
Mullins was delighted with Un de Sceaux. “He ran a cracker. To do what he did in the last half furlong is Un de Sceaux all over. He wears his heart on his sleeve.”
Earlier Evan Williams sent out the 14-1 shot Esprit Du Large to win the racingtv.com Henry VIII Novice Chase, traditionally a trial for the Arkle at Cheltenham. Despite his price, there was no fluke about it as the five-year-old and Adam Wedge beat Nube Negra a length and three-quarters with 13 lengths back to Grand Sansy in third.
The horse’s owners, Angie and William Rucker, long-time supporters of Williams, recently celebrated their 100th winner and though they have had countless placed horses in the Grand National this was their first Grade One. When asked what was next for Esprit Du Large, a delighted Mrs Rucker said she might look at him for a while.
It was a first Grade One over fences for Williams. “It’s difficult to get runners in these races let alone win them,” he said. “It’s emotional – he’s a store horse we brought through and most of them fall by the wayside.”
Having won the Randox Health Becher Chase last year and then finished fourth in the Grand National Walk In The Mill had probably earned the accolade ‘Aintree specialist’ before he repeated the feat in the Becher Chase.
This time, fitted with cheek-pieces, he travelled much more sweetly for James Best and the Robert Walford-trained nine-year-old came home 2½ lengths clear of Kimberlite Candy.
Everyone else in owner Baroness Harding’s family were on leaflet distribution duties in her husband John Penrose’s Weston-super-Mare constituency, but this was an infinitely better place to be.
“The pressure of having won the race last year made it a bit stressful – I prefer to be under the radar,” said the former Gold Cup-winning owner. He’ll have a holiday now and I expect come back for a novice hurdle in February and the next time you see him jump a fence in public will be in the National."