Santini was cut for Cheltenham Gold Cup glory following a taking success over Bristol De Mai in the 3m 1f Grade 2 Cotswold Chase on Festival Trials Day at the home of jumps racing.
The Nicky Henderson trained eight-year-old jumped well and tracked Nigel Twiston-Davies’ popular grey before taking up the running three from home when that one made a bad mistake.
Bristol De Mai then rallied strongly and looked the likely winner two from home when Santini clouted that obstacle.
However, jockey Nico de Boinville didn’t panic and Santini regained the lead after the last before powering up the gill to score by 3 1/2 lengths.
None of the five other starters got competitive and there was 29 lengths back to Top Ville Ben in third.
The form also looks rock solid as Bristol De Mai is a multiple Grade 1 winner who finished a fine thread to Al Boum Photo in last year’s Gold Cup.
I thought that Santini was impressive in disposing of him in the way that he did on just his fifth start over the larger obstacles and it was a huge step up on his seasonal reappearance run when scrambling home at Sandown.
He is a dour stayer who keeps on finding for pressure and those are the ideal attributes for the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday, March 13.
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Plenty more improvement to come
Henderson, who had previously won the Cotswold back in 1980 with Raffi Nelson, said: “I think this horse is worth the wait because that’s what it is all about – he is big, powerful and learning all the time.
“That was a lot better than Sandown, when we thought it would be an easy race and he wasn’t that impressive. We did do his wind but he thrives on work, work, work and we have thrown it at him. I can’t believe that there isn’t a fair amount of improvement to come – there has to be improvement, to be fair.
“Bristol de Mai is a rock-solid benchmark – I looked as though we had got there and then he came back and had another crack. Santini fought back well and there is plenty of improvement and plenty of time. We won’t be racing between now and the Gold Cup but it’s an open race – there are a lot of protagonists and we are one of them.”
Santini is a 7/1 chance (from 9/1) for Cheltenham Gold Cup with Paddy Power. The last horse to win the Cotswold Chase and go on to victory in chasing’s blue riband contest in the same season was Looks Like Trouble in 2000.
Paisley Park powers to second success in Cleeve Hurdle
Paisley Park cemented his position as one of the bankers of this year’s Cheltenham Festival for many when landing the Grade 2 Cleeve Hurdle for a second year in succession.
Emma Lavelle’s stable star is now unbeaten in his last seven starts and a red-hot 10/11 favourite with Paddy Power to retain his crown in the Grade 1 Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday, March 12.
The eight-year-old, who was sent off the 4/6 favourite, got the job done with the minimum of fuss in the hands of regular pilot Aidan Coleman.
After tracking the leaders travelling strongly, Paisley Park was produced to take up the running at the final flight before staying on strongly to account for Summerville Bioy by 1 1/4 lengths.
He was always only just doing enough and value for much more than the winning margin and the front two pulled nicely clear of the rest.
It was a performance which oozed class and in my opinion it’s very hard to see anything being good enough to stop him going in again at the Cheltenham Festival.
“His best performance” – Lavelle
A delighted Lavelle said: “I think it was his best performance. He is just so professional now and his jumping was so slick. He travelled everywhere – he had that flat spot in the split second when he went to quicken but it’s not like it was. He is just growing up and he is a joy.
“He has these magical big ears and, as soon as you see them go forward, you think ‘OK, we are alright now’. I know it was the right decision not to run him at Ascot and I am sorry to disappoint people that we didn’t run, but it was the right decision for him. This sets him up for the Stayers’ Hurdle now.”
Owner Andrew Gemmell added: “He is a special, special horse. There is something this season that has changed – he hasn’t hit a flat spot so far, which is a great thing, and he has matured. I remember all the great staying hurdlers with great affection and I love that we are even being talked about in those terms.”
Progressive Harry Senior reigns supreme in Ballymore
The progressive Harry Senior took the step up into Grade 2 company in his stride when running out the authoritative winner of the 2m 4f Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.
The six-year-old was always travelling well in the hands of Robbie Power and, after taking the lead approaching the final flight, stayed on strongly to deny 6/4 favourite King Roland by 2 1/4 lengths.
There was nothing not to like about the way in which he got the job done and the runner-up is a very highly regarded sort.
Harry Senior is clearly going the right way and looks yet another hugely exciting novice hurdler for west country handler Tizzard whose stable also houses leading Cheltenham Festival hopes Fiddlerontheroof, Master Debonair and The Big Breakaway.
He has the options of running in the Ballymore or Albert Bartlett at the Cheltenham Festival, for which he can be backed at 14/1 with William Hill and 20/1 with Paddy Power respectively, and connections were favouring the latter post race.
Tizzard said: “He is a lovely, big, strong stayer and a good horse on that form. He is more of a stayer than Fiddlerontheroof or any of my other novice hurdlers. This one could go up in trip and the rest could go back.
“I would have thought that we will go for the Albert Bartlett – we haven’t got much else to run in that and this horse looks like a stayer. He got a bit tapped at the bottom of the hill and then stayed on strong.”
Power keen on Albert Bartlett bid
Power added: “I thought there was fresher ground on the far-side from off the bend. They have been coming up the stands’ rail all winter, so it has got to be better. It’s not ideal to be over there on a green horse because he had a good look around and there is no running rail to help, but he is a real, genuine, good horse.
“We just had a talk and I honestly think that he has Albert Bartlett written all over him, especially if we get nicer ground at The Festival. He is going to improve for nicer ground and has a turn of foot over a trip, so he would strike me as an Albert Bartlett horse all day long.
“Colin has bought some lovely horses last year and it is coming to fruition now. We have a real strong bunch of novice hurdlers – I know some of them are going to clash but I will be doing my best to try and split them all up!”