As usual this winter, the going was heavy. One fence on the far side and the final fence in the home straight were bypassed. The attritional going didn’t prevent the crowd from witnessing some terrific finishes.
Racing began with a 3m novices chase. Quite simply, Springfield Fox (7/1) galloped his opponents into the ground, jumping well for Jonathan Burke and drawing clear up the straight to win by 12 lengths. Trainer Tom George has the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham in mind for this thorough stayer. Sizing Cusimano ran a perfectly respectable race in second.
The same tactics worked in the second race, where Tom Scudamore led throughout on David Pipe’s Eden Du Houx (6/5 fav) – but only just. The hat trick-seeking Mario De Pail, carrying six pounds more, challenged him constantly from before the penultimate flight. He could never quite get on terms, although one last surge on the run-in brought him to within a short head. He suffered some interference from the winner and it wouldn’t have been a big surprise to have seen the placings reversed. This pair look useful, for they pulled 24 lengths clear of the rest.
All eyes were on one of the leading contenders for the Grand National, Walk In The Mill, in the 3m hurdle. He finished fourth in the big race in 2019 and has won two Becher Chases over the Aintree fences. Today he was unable to catch another all-the-way winner, Blackjack Kentucky (10/11 fav, pictured), who had the race sewn up at the last. However, under a hands and heels ride from James Bowen Walk In The Mill pinched second place at the line. It was a thoroughly satisfactory performance and bookmakers left him at 20/1 for the National. Harry Cobden rode the four length winner for Paul Nicholls, who speculated that he might develop into a Welsh National horse.
Robbie Dunne was oozing confidence on Indian Brave (4/1 jt fav) as he followed the three leaders in the 2m3f chase along the home straight. He was going so well that he jumped to the front at the second last, which was probably sooner than he would have liked. Idling in front, On The Road came at him on the long run-in and the Neil Mulholland-trained leader was all out to hang on by a head.
Evan Williams and Adam Wedge, just denied in the preceding race, gained compensation when Caswell Bay (7/1) won the 2m3f hurdle. He led or disputed the lead from the outset. Le Cameleon and Grey Getaway threatened two out, only to be outstayed by the 11-length winner, who was helped by running in lesser company than he has sometimes faced.
It was impossible to dismiss most of the eight competitors for the 3m2f chase, but one who appeared to be safely ruled out was the 12/1 outsider Holdbacktheriver, who’d been beaten 15 lengths and more in each of his last five races. Nevertheless, today he was on a going day, and gave the in-form pair of Evan Williams and Adam Wedge another victory. Slugging it out with Top And Drop all the way up the straight, the lead alternated several times before Holdbacktheriver edged ahead in the last few strides to score by a neck. Western Climate had been 12 lengths behind two out, but made up ground doggedly to get to within a couple of lengths of the principals.
It was very dark when it came to the bumper. Threeunderthrufive (7/2) won it on the nod after a stirring battle with Drift Rock. They fought out the last furlong and a half with Unohu between them, who might have won but for being squeezed out by other two. The distances were a neck and two lengths. Unusually for a Paul Nicholls winner, Adrian Heskin was the man on board.