The International got underway at Cheltenham today with a seven-race programme running from 12.10pm through to 3.40pm. It was a great day for local trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, who enjoyed a 39/1 double. Both winners were partnered to victory by his son Sam.
Action was staged on the New Course, which was being utilised for the first time since The April Meeting.
The official going was Good on both the Chase & Hurdle Course and the Cross Country Course. GoingStick readings were 7.3 on the Chase & Hurdle Course & 7.5 on the Cross Country Course.
Chase bends (except on the Cross Country Course) were dolled out 10 yards, adding 63 yards to each circuit for races over two miles and three miles and 95 yards for races over two and a half miles.
The International continues tomorrow, Saturday, December 15, when the highlights are the £140,000 Unibet International Hurdle and the £130,000 Caspian Caviar Gold Cup Handicap Chase.
2.30pm CF Roberts 25 Years Of Sponsorship Handicap Chase (Grade 3) 3m 2f £60,000
The most valuable race of the afternoon, the £60,000 CF Roberts 25 Years Of Sponsorship Handicap Chase, saw Cogry (Nigel Twiston-Davies/Sam Twiston-Davies, 9/1, 10st 12lb) come out on a top in a thrilling three-way finish. The nine-year-old was recording his third success at the Home of Jump Racing.
It was a 39/1 double on the day for both the trainer and jockey following the success of Al Dancer in the Catesby Handicap Hurdle.
After making the running, Cogry was joined after the last by Singlefarmpayment (Tom George/Noel Fehily, 5/1, 11st 5lb) on his inside who went narrowly ahead, with Rolling Dylan (Philip Hobbs/Tom O'Brien, 16/1, 10st 13lb) also in close pursuit on his outside. Cogry rallied gamely in the shadows of the post to score by a head from Singlefarmpayment with Rolling Dylan a further neck away in third.
Nigel Twiston-Davies said: "It has been lovely this season having Sam back home again.
"Sam and Cogry were superb the whole way round and they had to be good horses to keep up with them.
"I think we are learning at long last that Cogry is probably better on better ground.
"We will definitely be back here for The Festival, in the Ultima [Handicap Chase], and he could have Grand National entry now. In the past, he has not been rated high enough but he would be nudging on the bottom now."
Sam Twiston-Davies added: "Cogry was running off a career-high mark (139) - he has been this high before and has always struggled. He got into a lovely rhythm today and it's always great to be in front where it matters.
"He was very accurate with his jumping and fair play to Nigel. I was a bit sceptical about coming here today as there are a lot of long-distance chases around but he was quite keen on coming here."
Graham Jelley, who owns Cogry in partnership with his wife Alison, said: "That was brilliant. He has won here twice before but one time we weren't here and the other time, it was so rainy and cold on New Year's Day that we were all stuck in the tent.
"He jumped fantastically today. He always goes a bit under the radar because he is one of Nige's but he has been great for us.
"My wife Alison has loved Cogry since the day she saw him as a four-year-old. I told her Nige had a nice horse running in a bumper at Southwell and she said that we didn't want another horse.
"Southwell is just down the road from us so I managed to persuade her to go and, as soon as she saw Cogry in the parade ring, she said that we were having him."
Tom George said of runner-up: "Singlefarmpayment doesn't actually know he hasn't won. Maybe that's what the problem is because he is frightfully pleased with himself.
"Noel Fehily has ridden him the last twice and thinks the extra two furlongs is stretching him. Noel isn't always right but, more often than not, he is.
"The problem is that there isn't a three-mile handicap chase for him around here, it's either three miles, one [furlong] or three miles, two [furlongs].
"But he has been a great horse for us and I am sure his day will come. As the owners have said, he is a great horse to own because he gives you that thrill every time."
Left to right: Rolling Dylan, Cogry & Singlefarmpayment
3.05pm Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase 3m 6f 37y £35,000
The Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase, the second of three Cross Country chases staged at Cheltenham during the season, went the way of Fact Of The Matter (Jamie Snowden/Gavin Sheehan, 6/1, 10st 10lb).
The eight-year-old was making his second start over Cheltenham's unique cross country course, having gone down by three-quarters of a length to Josies Orders (Enda Bolger /Mark Walsh, 11st 8lb, 7/2 joint-favourite) at The November Meeting.
It was another Enda Bolger-trained contender My Hometown (Niall Madden, 8/1, 10st 1lb) who tried to make all the running. Leading or disputing it until after the last, he was passed by the staying-on Fact Of The Matter, with that rival running on well to score by a neck in another terrific finish. Josies Orders was another length and three-quarters away when finishing fast to snatch third from French challenger Amazing Comedy (David Cottin FR/Felix de Giles, 7/2 joint-favourite), who finished a further short-head behind in fourth.
Lambourn-based Jamie Snowden commented: "What a thrill! Fact Of The Matter is some horse. He jumped from fence to fence and Gavin has given the horse an absolute peach of a ride - he has nipped every inside bend.
"I think the fact that we had the inside rail, he winged the least beautifully and stormed up the hill. What a ride and what a horse. I rode one winner here and training one is just unbelievable, it's a different thrill altogether.
"He took to the fences brilliantly and they do say that horses improve for their first run over them. Let's hope that he can improve from his second to third run.
"Today was a handicap and the Cross Country race at The Festival is a conditions race, so it is a completely different kettle of fish. He has obviously taken to the fences well and it makes sense to come back here in March if we can."
Gavin Sheehan said: "Fact Of The Matter seemed to be a lot more relaxed today and seemed to jump an awful lot better. He jumped brilliantly the whole way and put some massive leaps in but I was thinking after winging the last that the J P McManus horse was going to come back and do me.
"He tried his heart and soul out last time and I was gutted for him whereas today I am thrilled for the horse that he has got his head back in front. He gained a lot of confidence from his first run over the course.
"There are jumps out there that you can go through, rather than jumping up and over, and he learned that he can go through them. He was brilliant over the bank and, the further he was going, the better he was getting."
The Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase was the final race in the Crystal Cup European Cross Country Challenge. The 10-race series takes in many of Europe's premier racecourses, over unique combinations of hedges, banks, ditches and timber. The Challenge began in Pau in South West France in February and culminated at Cheltenham today, following four further races in France and visits to Poland, Belgium, Italy and to the Czech Republic for the Velka Pardubika.
Fact Of The Matter (right) and My Hometown at the last
12.10pm £15,000 British Stallion Studs EBF 'National Hunt' Novices' Hurdle 2m 179y
Elixir De Nutz (Colin Tizzard/Harry Cobden, 6/5 Favourite) recorded back-to-back wins at Cheltenham when landing the opening British Stallion Studs EBF 'National Hunt' Novices' Hurdle.
The four-year-old, racing in the famous colours of owner Terry Warner, landed the G2 Sky Bet Supreme Trial Novices' Hurdle at The November Meeting for which he had to shoulder a 10lb penalty today. He once again made all the running and had little difficulty in seeing off second favourite Jarveys Plate (Fergal O'Brien/Paddy Brennan, 11/8) by a length and three quarters.
Colin Tizzard said: "Elixir De Nutz made the running here last time and Harry (Cobden) wanted to keep it simple. We were giving 10lb to the rest of the field as well and I think, looking at him, you can go as fast as you like over two miles - he will get that trip however fast you go.
"He jumps so well that you can use his jumping in front as you are not getting held back by other horses.
"It's a relief because some of ours haven't been running so well in the past fortnight and we were just getting a bit jumpy but he was obviously all right. We have had a few dirty noses - everyone has - but it was only a few. We were conscious of it - it all looks good on the on the surface but we are paddling pretty hard underneath.
"When we ran Elixir De Nutz here the first time (in January), we were all prepared for him to buck someone off over the rail or bolt going to the start, but he has been a Christian this season, both at home and on the racecourse.
"I think he will have one more run and then come back for The Festival. You could go as fast as you like over two miles knowing that he would get it and I am sure the Supreme Novices' is where we will go.
"I don't think that we would be brave enough to go up to two and a half. We always tend to think that they have to go up in trip but I don't think we have to with this lad - we can make the running and then go as fast as we like."
Harry Cobden added: "No-one wanted to make the running and I think Elixir De Nutz is growing up all the time. I don't have to make the running on him anymore but I thought that he was the best horse in the race and we should go a nice, even gallop and keep it straightforward.
"He certainly jumps very well - he came out of my hands at a couple of hurdles - and he impressed me.
"I told Colin to enter him in all three novice hurdles at The Festival. I think he does stay and I am not 100 per cent sure that he is a speed horse, so maybe the two and a half mile option might suit him. If we enter in all three, then we can hopefully pick the one which is least competitive!
"He is going the right way and settling all the time. When he first came to us, he was keen and a bit of a boy but he is doing everything nicely in his stride. It is lovely to see."
Elixir De Nutz out in front
12.45pm Neville Lumb Novices' Chase 3m 1f 56y £25,000
The Worlds End (Tom George/Noel Fehily, 7/4 Favourite), a G1 winner over hurdles, made it two wins from three starts over fences when successful in the Neville Lumb Novices' Chase.
Owned by the McNeill Family, The Worlds End finished third to Ibis Du Rheu in the mallardjewellers.com Novices' Chase at The November Meeting but totally turned that form around today as he made all the running to come home 26 lengths clear of the same rival. The 2017 Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle runner-up Lil Rockerfeller (Neil King/Wayne Hutchinson, 2/1) came into today's race unbeaten in three starts over fences but got no further than the second fence, where he unseated his jockey.
Noel Fehily was standing in for the stable's regular jockey Adrian Heskin, who suffered a broken leg at Taunton yesterday.
Fehily said: "Adrian [Heskin] said to ride The Worlds End fairly positively.
"It is very unfortunate for Adrian - he has done all the work on the horse and all the schooling - but he will bounce back. I have been there myself and what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
"The Worlds End has form over three miles over hurdles and stays well. He had a reverse at the weights today with the second. It was all pretty straightforward and I thought his jumping was very good.
"I think he is fairly battle-hardened - he has been running in some competitive hurdle races.
"I am not sure how many more runs he will have before The Festival, but he is pretty safe on his feet and I think he will be OK that way."
Tom George added: "I am sorry for Adrian Heskin, who couldn't ride The Worlds End today. Noel was talking to him this morning, just before his operation on his leg, and Noel has been riding a lot for me lately. He comes in regularly to ride out and is the right man to have on your side.
"Last time, it was probably a bit of a messy race and he had enough experience now to go and ride him like Noel did. It has all worked well for us today.
"He loves good ground - he is fine on good to soft, but doesn't like the deep, heavy ground we got all last winter.
"The Festival is a long way off. We will just enjoy today, keep on ticking along and see where we end up. We won't run him on heavy ground - there is no need to - and it doesn't look like we are going to get it for a bit this winter.
"We got him going early this year and it's nice to have some decent ground. Hopefully, we will get it again in the spring."
The Worlds End
1.20pm Catesby Handicap Hurdle (0-140) 2m 179y £15,000
Al Dancer (Nigel Twiston-Davies/Sam Twiston-Davies, 3/1 favourite, 11st 4lb) is now unbeaten in three starts over hurdles after a very comfortable victory in the Catesby Handicap Hurdle, his handicap debut.
The Dai Walters-owned five-year-old travelled superbly throughout and after taking up the running approaching the final flight, lengthened well to score by 11 lengths from Not That Fuisse (Dan Skelton/Harry Skelton, 11/2, 11st).
Nigel Twiston-Davies said: "Al Dancer is superb. He was a nice horse in his bumpers last season and is improving.
"He will certainly have an entry in the Betfair Hurdle and we will see what the handicapper does. I hope that he doesn't take the form too literally - maybe they didn't run so well in behind!
"The Festival is where we want to come - Dai likes going there - and that is our plan. We were entered in the novice hurdle earlier today but Dai had another horse for the race - I am sure that Al Dancer would have won that if he had run.
"He seems to very versatile in terms of ground. He won on heavy at Ffos Las and good ground here today. He is a beautiful mover and a lovely, proper racehorse.
"I am sure that he is a stayer in the future but he is quite buzzy in his races. As he learns to settle, he will be more of a distance horse."
Sam Twiston-Davies added: "Al Dancer is a lovely horse. It was kind of Dai [Walters, owner] to let us have a go today because we were a little bit worried about the ground, but we felt it was the right race and next step in his education.
"We were good and positive from the home turn. He was good and brave, and jumped well. It was a nice performance.
"That was only his third run over hurdles. He has good way of going and is a slick jumper.
"Nige was cursing me on the way in because I have won too far. If the handicapper is very harsh on him, that could rule out the Betfair Hurdle and put him into some of those graded hurdles.
"But as you know with dad, he is quite tempted by the money and the Betfair Hurdle is worth a lot more than some of those graded novice hurdles.
"He will have all the options and we can see what suits on the day."
1.55pm CF Roberts Electrical & Mechanical Services Mares' Handicap Chase (0-125) 2m 4f 127y £15,000
Irish handler Gordon Elliott made another successful British raid when Synopsis (Richard Johnson, 13/2) defied top-weight of 12 stone to take the CF Roberts Electrical & Mechanical Services Mares' Handicap Chase.
Always in touch, the six-year-old took the lead two fences from home and never looked in any danger as she romped to a 10-length success over the front-running Black Tulip (Henry Daly/Tom O'Brien, 6/1, 11st 6lb).
Gordon Elliott said: "I thought that Richard gave her a lovely ride - he followed them round, let the race happen in front and kept hold of her head. The further she went, the better she got.
"He is a great man to have riding for you because you know that he is going to give everything 120 per cent and, when you have a bit of luck with someone, it's great too.
"I said that he would know if it was happening for her after three or four fences. When she winged the first couple of fences, I knew that we were on a going day. She is hot and cold but thankfully she was hot today.
"It would be great to get a bit of black type for her over fences because she has won on the Flat, over hurdles and over fences. She is going to be a nice broodmare for someone down the road."
Richard Johnson said: "I did not realise there was so much carnage behind me.
"Gordon was worried that she might get taken off of her feet early, but she actually travelled really well and jumped nicely.
"I was half expecting something from behind to come and challenge after the second last but they didn't, and she has done it really well.
"I felt we went a nice, even gallop. I know the horse in front Black Tulip stays really well and I actually thought she had a bit of freebie in front, so I thought I would challenge going to the second last and mine has picked up quite nicely considering she had top-weight.
"Gordon said if she ran to her Punchestown form last season, she would have a great chance, but he said she can run two different sorts of races and you will probably know your fate after half a mile.
"There are a lot of mares race now. It gives trainers lots of options. Philip Hobbs never used have any mares whereas now he has a barn full.
"Whenever Gordon brings a horse over, you take note because he always knows the right races to run them in. It looked like she had a big weight but Dave Roberts rang yesterday to ask whether I would like to ride this mare or Henry Daly's, and Gordon seemed pretty keen on her chances. Henry was good to let me ride for Gordon.
"I found early on, when I was trying to organise her a little bit, she wasn't really enjoying it, so I let her get on with it. Gordon's horses are very well schooled and you can be quite brave with them."
3.40pm CITIPOST Handicap Hurdle 2m 7f 213y £22,000
The concluding CITIPOST Handicap Hurdle saw Aaron Lad (Dr Richard Newland/Charlie Hammond (5), 15/2, 11st 4lb) take the honours.
Taking the lead approaching the last, Aaron Lad stayed on strongly to see off Keeper Hill (Warren Greatrex/Wayne Hutchinson, 14/1, 11st 9lb) by three lengths.
Charlie Hammond said: "Aaron Lad is a lovely horse. He is tough and all he wants to do is gallop. I was off the bridle a long way out but I have kept squeezing and it is all down to him.
"He is not very big but he jumps, he is brave and tough. He is a lovely little horse and I am privileged to ride him.
"I thought the ground today would be really against him because it was a bit softer the last day and I would say that he wants more cut than this. He is just tough and that has won him the race.
"He is a big improver and I think that we will turn him away for the Pertemps Final now. He will get into that race after today and hopefully we can have a nice day out then."