Ben Case was associated with some of Oliver Sherwood's best horses when an assistant trainer in Lambourn, but veteran Croco Bay was a first Festival winner of his own after 20 years with a licence when the 66/1 winner from Bun Doran (11/1) in the meeting's penultimate race, the two-mile Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase.
Appropriately the 12-year-old races for Lady Jane Grosvenor, who has supported the Wardington Gate Farm yard, north of Banbury, from the word go.
Case has never trained in great numbers and had 18 winners in his best season, but he has always known what he was doing and he had Croco Bay fit to run for his life despite a 227-day absence from the track, which was just as well as he had to dig deep to repel Bun Doran by a length and a half after forcing the pace throughout.
Wiping away tears, he said: "I don't know what to say. A week ago I wasn't sure we would get in, and I have to thank Paul Webber, who let me swim Croco Bay. I knew he was fit, as he went to Newbury the other day and never blew a candle out. He was in great form. He just loves it. He runs with his heart on his sleeve and I'm thrilled - lost for words.
"There has been a lot of work going into Croco Bay. He had a year off the previous year and we brought him back from a long lay-off to run at Worcester when he ran very well. The ground was a bit on and off afterwards and I thought if we are ever going to have the chance of winning a big race, he has to come back here. We gave him the winter off and brought him back after Christmas. He loves it around here. He has been third and fifth, and the time I really did fancy him he fell at the water, which is very unlike him, but he has made up for it today.
"He is 12-year-old, but he is like a six-year-old at home. He has a great attitude the horse and if he was worked up, I would be worried. He has been to all the festivals - here, Aintree, Galway, Punchestown - and to win here is fantastic. He is proper handicapper. He is what he is, but he goes out there and runs his heart out every time. For a small yard like ours to have somebody like him, it is great for us.
"This is what we do the job for, to have days like this. We have about 30 in the yard and it is a very small team. Everybody knows each other really well and have been with me for a long time. I am just really pleased for everybody. It is an emotional occasion. The owner has put a lot into it. We buy and sell foals. She has a few horses in training with me and we have had a lot of fun. We had a big winner with Deep Trouble at Punchestown a long time ago and this horse has carried the can for us as well."
Case has had just three runners at Cheltenham and they have all been Croco Bay, who was third in 2015 and fifth two years later. This has been the target since he ran at Worcester last July.
The trainer confirmed: "He had a year off before Worcester and then I didn't want to run him again as the ground was so firm, but this has been the aim all along."
Sherwood and his wife Tarnya were among the first to offer congratulations. Tarnya Sherwood said: "Ben was my lodger. He was with is in the good days of horses like Rebel Song, The West Awake and Cruising Altitude. It's one of the best results of the week."
CROCO KEEPS THEM ALL AT BAY
A gallant performance by Croco Bay gave his owner, Lady Jane Grosvener, trainer Ben Case and jockey Kielan Woods a first winner at The Festival™ presented by Magners when taking the G3 £110,000 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase at odds of 66/1.
The 12-year-old, who hadn't run since last July, beat Bun Doran by a length and a half in a battle from the final fence.
Twenty-six-year-old Woods, who runs a point-to-pointing and pre-training yard near Stow on the Wold with his girlfriend Christy Mews, said: "I am so shell shocked! I have been dreaming of this ever since I first sat on a horse. As the years go on, you think maybe it's not going to happen. I've never been stuck for words in my life, but I am stuck for words now - I don't know what to say. It's weird, but in a good way.
"We wanted to pop out handy away because we always do; any time he's run in this race we've been very handy. I couldn't believe how well he was jumping down the back; I gave him a kick at a few and he was meeting Gino Trail [ridden by Richard Johnson] on the same stride and landing a stride in front of him. He was really enjoying it and I kicked on downhill, winged three out and I thought, 'they'll come by me in a minute'. I was tight to the rail to give us a little chance.
"He winged two out, winged the last and I thought, 'this is too good to be true.' He just stuck his head down and went all the way to the line.
"What a little horse he is. Twelve years of age. He hasn't run in nearly a year. It's an amazing training performance. Not many horses have their prep run round Worcester in July! He's obviously a fragile little horse but what a training performance and my God, he jumped today. I want more now! We'll enjoy today, anyway."
4.50pm Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase (Grade 3)
1 Croco Bay (Lady Jane Grosvenor) Ben Case 12-10-12 Kielan Woods 66/1
2 Bun Doran (Crossed Fingers Partnership) Tom George 8-11-07 Paddy Brennan 11/1
3 Brelan D'As (J P McManus) Paul Nicholls 8-10-09 Bryony Frost 8/1
4 Forest Bihan (Phil Martin) Brian Ellison 8-11-12 Danny Cook 33/1
9/2 fav Magic Saint (10th)
Distances: 1½, 2½, 1
Time: 4m 5.29s
Tote Win: £138.20 Places: £15.50, £3.00, £2.60, £6.50 Exacta: £1,012.30
Ben Case - 1st winner at The Festival
Kielan Woods - 1st winner at The Festival