Sporting John made a winning return when reverting to hurdles in the Listed Paddy Power Games Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham today.
The JP McManus-owned six year old won the Grade One Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown Park last season but failed to complete in Grade One contests at the Cheltenham and Randox Grand National festivals.
Despite being burdened with top-weight of 11st 12lbs in today’s three-mile contest, he came home the comfortable two and a half-length winner from Onagatheringstorm.
Plans remain fluid for Sporting John following his win today and trainer Philip Hobbs said: “We had entered him in one or two chases and we couldn’t really find somewhere that was going to be competitive with all these three runner races so it made more sense to run him here.
“A bit of confidence over hurdles here would have done him no harm. Last season he was a bit in and out. He did win a Grade One novice chase at Sandown, the Scilly Isles, so it wasn’t a disaster but we couldn’t really find a chase to get him underway again so we came back to hurdles.
“It is certainly a possibility of staying over hurdles but that all needs discussing. Some of the chases last season didn’t work out great but that was a bit of bad luck or one thing or another. I wouldn’t rule out going back over fences but on the other hand he could be a high-class hurdler too. There are lots of options.
“He is a beautiful horse and he looked so good when he came here for the Ballymore 18 months ago when it didn’t work out anyway it is great to see him back. If I have two runners for the Stayers’ Hurdle (along with Thyme Hill) I would be delighted. One reason coming here was that if he did win it left us options over hurdles as well as maybe fences. He was always staying on particularly well and particularly after the last. Three miles is no problem to him.”
Jockey Tom O’Brien added: “It all went well and to start with it was a confidence-boosting mission, because last season - bar the Sandown Grade One victory over Shan Blue – didn’t really go to plan. Starting off on a good note was the main plan really and winning was a bonus.
“He felt happy and was always travelling within himself and to be honest it took a while to get his confidence up, he was happy to run to the boards every time, but that run will hopefully get his confidence back up and he has options to go back chasing now.
“Having seen what Shan Blue was about to do up at Wetherby, it would be nice to go back chasing, but what he’s done there off top-weight means he’s got a lot of options really. He would have another stepping stone before he gets into the Stayers’ Hurdle picture, but he most definitely has some nice options.”
Successful owner JP McManus seemed to suggest that a hurdling campaign was the most likely option for Sporting John this season.
McManus said: “I’m glad they decided to go back over hurdles and see what would happen as over fences his jumping was a little indifferent. The decision to go back over hurdles was suggested by Philip and nobody had any objection. We had fingers crossed as he looked great. I didn’t back him but that doesn’t mean anything. I should have now!
“I’m delighted with him though. It is a handicap today so he has dropped a grade but hopefully he might become a Graded horse over hurdles. I will leave it up to Philip but I see no reason why not to stay over hurdles.”
Meanwhile the season’s leading trainer Fergal O’Brien enjoyed a 1-2 in the Listed Stirrups Restaurant and Cocktail Bar Evesham Mares' Open National Hunt Flat Race as 2-1 favourite Bonttay came home a length and a quarter ahead of stable companion Leading Theatre and is now likely to be seen out next in the Grade One Weatherbys Champion Hurdle at The Festival in March.
This was a second Cheltenham success for the four year old Westerner filly following her 22-1 victory in the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars Open National Hunt Flat Race at The Showcase last month.
O’Brien, who was saddling his 72nd winner of the 2021-22 campaign, said: “It’s been a great day and they’ve all run well today, so I’m delighted. To get that one-two is unbelievable and I didn’t care who won to be honest!
“I do own half of Bonttay so maybe I was cheering her a little bit more! It’s a shame Cedric (Brookes, part-owner) couldn’t be here today but he’s a great supporter of the yard and he’ll be loving this at home so I’m delighted for him.
“She’s absolutely hosed up and I feel a little bit sorry for Connor Brace (who rode her to victory here last month) who didn’t get a say, but that’s the trouble when you’re a number two, you don’t get the say and Paddy wasn’t going to ride anything else. Paddy rode another in the race last month and he was always getting on Bonttay.
“This is the same route we took with The Govaness, except she won on debut and then was fifth at the October meeting, so we were very hopeful coming here. This is the third run of her life and she’s phenomenal, it gives me goose bumps talking about her.
“She doesn’t even know what she’s doing and Paddy just said there was so much left in her. She could feel Connor (Brace) coming to her and there was so much left.
“We’ll probably put her away now until The Festival and come back here in March.”
On runner-up Leading Theatre, O’Brien added: “I’ll speak to the owner about what’s next. She’s been fantastic and won two races around Worcester. Dave (Shorey) gave her to me to try and sell her and we wouldn’t have got much money at the time but maybe we’ll get it now.”
Successful jockey Paddy Brennan was enjoying a 15.5-1 double on day two of The November Meeting following the victory of 9-2 chance Knight Salute in today’s opening contest.
Local success came in the sixth race of the day when Gowel Road won the Paddy Power Feel Like A Favourite Intermediate Handicap Hurdle for the Nigel Twiston-Davies team. The five year old came home strongly for a two and a half-length success under Sam Twiston-Davies at 9-2.
Winning trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies admitted he had come close to withdrawing the son of Flemensfirth on account of the going today.
He said: “There was no disagreement at all. Sam got off the horse before and said ‘this ground is fast and he’s better on softer ground, take him out’. I rang one of the owners and he said ‘no, we’ll go for it’ and thank goodness we did!
“We always thought he’d stay the trip and he’s always been a lovely horse – the softer the ground, the better. Let’s hope he carries on going up the ranks, the handicapper will have his say now. He jumped well beautifully bar one and next season he’ll almost certainly be going over fences. We’ll wait and go home and see now, but we’ll look at all of the top handicaps.”
Jockey Sam Twiston-Davies added: “Luckily I have a father who doesn’t ever listen to me! I asked him to pull him out after the last race but Steve Wignall who owns him along with dad said to leave him and take his chance, and if it wasn’t to be we’d come down the handicap.
“We were literally going out there to have a nice time and he’s ended up winning, so sometimes you just can’t write it. The step up in trip has suited him and he’s jumped and travelled so well today, so hopefully he carries on progressing.”