Richard Hobson described the victory of Fugitif (13-2) as ‘incredible’ after his wait for a winner he has long dreamed off finally came to fruition in a pulsating renewal of the £130,000 Virgin Bet December Gold Cup Handicap Chase, the highlight of The Christmas Meeting at Cheltenham today.
With a record of zero winners from his previous 43 runners at the track, a figure which included 11 seconds the most recent of which came 24 hours earlier with Lord Du Mesnil, the Little Rissington handler finally broke his duck with the eight-year-old gelding in the extended two and half miles Premier Handicap.
All eyes before the race were drawn to the Olly Murphy-trained Thunder Rock, however the writing was on the wall for the 3-1 Favourite who was eventually pulled up by Sean Bowen before the fourth last.
In a race that was run a ferocious tempo victory looked to be heading the way of last month’s Paddy Power Gold Cup third Il Ridoto, who having burned off eventual third Frero Banbou turning for home opened up a healthy advantage on the run to the final two fences.
However, all was to change after the last after Fugitif, who had been second on three of his four previous visits to Cheltenham along with finishing fourth in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, started to hit top gear under Gavin Sheehan.
It looked as though it was going to be second best once again for Fugitif as Il Ridoto kept on pulling out more, but with one final lunge the Ballingarry gelding stuck his neck out where it mattered most before scoring by a short head.
Hobson said: “He was quite far back, but we had a top jockey on and we got there in the end. The plan wasn’t to be that far back, but he has ridden a lovely race on him. The ground was really dead and tiring and he has timed it to perfection.
“They keep climbing the handicap when they finish second so to come here and carry a big weight like he has done today it is just a fabulous performance by the horse.
“It is incredible. I’ve had 11 seconds and you think is it ever going to happen. All be it we have been running at the top end. We haven’t been coming here with a well handicapped horse, we have been trying to punch above our weight and it has just taken its time but we have got there in the end.
“I hoped he would get his day in the sun. Off 151 today it is just an incredible performance by him. At the top of the hill I thought he was creeping into it, then he had to get past the horse that fell and I thought that has put an end to it.
“I thought at the second last we had a definite chance. I don’t know how the heart rate was over the last as I didn’t check it.
“As they went past the post I thought it was a near miss again, but thankfully the result went our way for a change.”
“There is a conditions race at Lingfield, the Fleur De Lys, so we might go for that. It is on January 21st which is my birthday and we might go there.”
Winning jockey Gavin Sheehan told ITV Racing: “The last time I rode him (when fourth in last month's Paddy Power Gold Cup) I felt he was a bit keen and I was handier but today it felt like we were going flat out.
“After jumping three fences I said to Sean Bowen what are you are doing back here and he said I want to be ahead so that gave me confidence that they were going a gallop. From a long way out, I thought we have got to chase the front two but I was just biding my time to chase.
“He finished strong up the hill and that is what I wanted. It was just whether they were going to stop in front and to be fair that was just a brilliant result for Richard Hobson and his team as he has had a lot of seconds here.
“He deserved that as he is a brilliant horse to ride. He got one fence wrong but that was it and other than that he was brilliant. It was such a great feeling coming down the hill travelling like he did. I thought the race may be over and we might be picking up the piece but to be fair I didn’t know how I was going to win on him today. I just let the race unfold.”
As for Il Ridoto, his trainer Paul Nicholls has earmarked a return to course and distance on January 27th for the Premier Handicap he won this year on Festival Trials Day.
Nicholls said: “He ran well from the front end, but you are always susceptible to a finisher. He did keep galloping and he half pricked his ears. He has run a blinding race, and he is an improving young horse. I’m thrilled with him. He will come back here on Trials Day for the race he won last season.”