With a performance reminiscent of his Supreme Novices Hurdle victory at the 2011 Cheltenham Festival, Al Ferof stormed up the Cheltenham hill to ensure superiority over Alan King's Walkon in a battle of the greys in Saturday's Paddy Power Gold Cup.
With two-time Cheltenham Gold Cup hero, Kauto Star, being inducted into the Cheltenham Racecourse Hall of Fame earlier in the day after his recent retirement, it was somewhat fitting that the a new star for in the division were to come from his former stable mate. Despite the plethora of talent on show at his stable, trainer Paul Nicholls was remarkably winning this race for the first time with John Hales' seven year old.
With Casey Top taking things up at the head of affairs, Al Ferof settled in mid-pack for the majority of the race alongside Hunt Ball and Grands Crus, from the in-form stable of David Pipe. As the runners began to enter into their final circuit of the racecourse, Ruby Walsh was sitting notably well aboard Nicholls' runner before dashing to the front with three fences to go.
Despite the ease at which Al Ferof angled to the front, Alan King's Walkon looked a huge danger as the runners angled into the straight. As Walkon and Robert Thornton dashed towards the inside of Al Ferof, it looked as though Walkon would take full advantage of the fifteen pounds he was receiving from his rival, yet Al Ferof continued to pull out an tenacious amount of heart to continue plugging on to achieve an exceptional weight-carrying victory off of second-top weight of 164 pounds.
Pre-race favourite, Grands Crus, had come towards the front runners under a tight hold only to flatten out rapidly when angling into the straight. Hunt Ball, the £400 horse owned by the ecentric Anthony Knott, was unable to finish the race, eventually finishing as one of eleven horses to fail to complete the race which was run in extremely testing conditions.
"That was a stunning performance" said Nicholls, "He didn't get going until mid-September, but he had a gallop at Wincanton last Sunday, goes well fresh, and on Thursday he did a piece of work that was as good as any he's ever done. I knew he was coming right but I didn't expect him to go that well, particularly in that ground."
"He went over the top last spring but we were running him over a trip that was probably too short and he walked through the ditch in the Arkle Trophy [Cheltenham Festival 2012]" said Nicholls, "He's really grown up since then and we will have to think about Kempton [King George VI Chase, Dec 26] for him now."
A race won by the Kauto Star on four separate occasions, the King George VI Chase is the mid-season jewel in the National Hunt Season, and one that many a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner have taken down en route to Festival glory.
"it was a great performance, he's jumped really well" said jockey Walsh, "He got a bit idle from the back of the last fence for a little but but, once he got by the horse, he started to run again. He was well prepared today, hasn't run since Aintree [April 2012] and has turned up today with 164 pounds on his back and done it well."
"He is a class horse and you look at the previous winners of this race and you need a bit of class, and that is why we were anxious to take our chance. We've probably been running him over the wrong trip against Sprinter Sacre last season and, maybe, we should be stepping him up in trip instead of riding him over the wrong trip."
Seen handing out scarves in the colours of Al Ferof prior to racing, John Hales is enjoying a purple patch in his foray as an owner. A narrow margin winner of the 2012 Grand National with Neptune Collonges in April, Hales has always held Al Feorf dear to his heart.
With Neptune Collonges exiting the National Hunt sphere towards retirement, Hales can now dream of big days with Al Ferof with the Cheltenham Gold Cup a notable target in four months time back at the track.
Photos Courtesy of Emma-Louise Kerwin (Goodtosoft.co.uk)