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Betfair Chase

They billed yesterday’s Betfair Chase at Haydock as a match: Native River versus Might Bite.  A re-match actually.  The first two home in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March going head to head again. 

They cast Bristol De Mai merely in a supporting role, but Nigel Twiston-Davies’ horse emerged centre stage and, under a swashbuckling ride from Daryl Jacob, galloped his rivals ragged.

We have been here before.  It was on this day last year that Bristol De Mai won his first Betfair Chase.  He set off in front that day, and he had set up an unassailable lead by the time they reached the top of the home straight.  Cue Card kept on to be second best last year, and he struggled home, all of 57 lengths behind.

The contrast between last year and this year was stark.  Last year, the rains fell at Haydock and they called the ground heavy.  Yesterday, devoid of appreciable precipitation, they raced on ground that they officially termed good, good to soft in places.

We knew before yesterday that Bristol De Mai was dynamite on soft or heavy ground at Haydock.  He had raced at the Lancashire track three times, on soft or heavy ground on each occasion, and he had won three times.  A Grade 2 Altcar Novices’ Chase, a Grade 2 Peter Marsh Chase and a Grade 1 Betfair Chase. 

Before yesterday, we were not certain whether it was the heavy ground or the Haydock track that brought out the best in Simon Munir and Isaac Souede’s horse.  The market for yesterday’s race was framed under the hypothesis that it was the former.  That hypothesis was emphatically disproved.  It is not even certain whether or not it’s the latter.

“He’s one of the real top horses in the country,” said Twiston-Davies.  “At any track.  He grinds them down by jumping well and galloping.  He’s just very difficult to keep right.  First and second time out, he’s superb.  Then he starts getting his aches and pains.  Hopefully we can keep him right now.”

Bristol De Mai was right yesterday, that’s for sure.  The grey horse settled into a nice racing rhythm from early under Daryl Jacob, up on the outside of Native River, the pair of them sharing and disputing and exchanging the lead from flagfall.

The Saddler Maker’s jumping was good.  He was a little slow at the fourth fence, and he was a little slow again at the 13th, with the result that Native River got up on his inside again as they raced around the home turn.  

Nico de Boinville started to get lower in the saddle on favourite Might Bite on the crown of the bend, and Richard Johnson asked Native River for his effort as soon as they straightened up for home.  All the while, however, Bristol De Mai travelled kindly in Jacob’s steady hands in front, and it wasn’t really until they had landed over the second last fence that the jockey shook the reins at him.  Jacob punched his horse out all the way up the run-in to the winning line, and he punched the air as he crossed it.

“I’m chuffed to bits for the horse,” said the rider.  “He was completely forgotten about this year, but our camp had different ideas.  We’ve believed in this horse for a long time.  He’s given me his all out there.  I’m delighted for him.”

It’s not the first time that Twiston-Davies has stolen the laurels at a high-profile match.  In the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup, billed as a shoot-out between Kauto Star and Denman, it was the Twiston-Davies-trained Imperial Commander who emerged victorious, driven to a famous victory by Paddy Brennan.

“There is more fun in life being the underdog.  When you know you can’t win, it’s great when you do.”

As well as bagging the £112,540 first prize, Bristol De Mai was also setting himself up for a tilt at the Stayers Chase Triple Crown, the £1 million bonus that goes to the connections of any horse who can win the Betfair Chase, the King George VI Chase and the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the same season.  

Only one horse – Kauto Star in 2006/07 – has ever achieved the feat.  It’s not easily done, but it’s not impossible either. 

Unsurprising, it looks like the King George at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day is next up for Bristol De Mai.  The bookmakers say 8/1, no bigger.  It will be a while before he is under-rated again.

© The Sunday Times, 25th November 2018