Evan Williams earmarked the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase at the Cheltenham Festival as a suitable target for Libberty Hunter, who provided his owners William and Angela Rucker with some much-needed cheer at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.
The eight-year-old gelding successfully defied a 10lb hike in the weights for his last time out success at Wincanton when benefitting from a well judged by Adam Wedge in the Close Brothers Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase.
Victory looked to be heading the way of enigmatic leader Matata who appeared to have matters in control after jumping the final fence in the extended two-mile contest, however he was reeled in late on by the 3-1 chance with a length separating the pair at the post.
Williams said: “I’m delighted. To be fair there are times when you win in a style that you have no complaints (about a rise in the weights). I was just worried about coming here too soon after that, but we were happy he had a good school rather than a race last time.
“He was a very good bumper horse. His breeder Brian Eckley is a local man to us and is a man that I’ve always had a lot of respect for. It is lovely to get a winner with one of his home-bred horses as he is a lovely tough horse.
“We’ve had a very unlucky season with a lot of mishaps with a lot of very young nice horses at home. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong with their string (Angela and William Rucker) so hopefully 2024 brings a bit more luck.
“I would say a Grand Annual would be something to look at, but I need to get another run into him beforehand. The Grand Annual or the Red Rum at Aintree I would say he would hold his own in, even as a novice.
“I thought some of his jumping was proficient and the way the novice chase campaign is these days that is where you get pushed.”
Peaky Boy ensured owner Olly Harris welcomed in 2024 in perfect fashion after securing him a first Cheltenham success in the Favourite From The Sun Now Daily Maiden Hurdle.
After signing off last season with a victory in a bumper at Newcastle for his former trainer Michael Scudamore the gelded son of Kayf Tara hit the ground running on his first start for Nicky Henderson with a clear-cut victory in the extended two and a half mile prize.
Stalking the leading pair of Magical King and Champagne Twist for much of the race the 13-8 Favourite was sent on into the lead by James Bowen after jumping the last.
Although Champagne Twist briefly threatened to stage a rally Peaky Boy showed that stamina is very much his forte when drawing clear late on before scoring by five lengths.
Harris said: “It was the first race of the year here so we are off to a good start. We were pretty confident as I thought it was quite a weak race.
“Some of them were looking a bit exposed and the top one was only rated 119 and we knew he was a lot better than that from his homework and also from his bumper and point-to-point form.
“We looked after him as he did the two bumpers with Michael and then Nicky has loads of time with him. We were pretty confident that the ground and trip were perfect for him.
“Nicky has got a lot of good yard sticks, and this lad isn’t as flashy as some of the other ones, like the proper speed horses, but he is tough and genuine and you saw today he was doing all his best work at the end.
“I’ve got a couple more good ones to come out so we will see where he is then. I think we will look after him as I think he is a three-mile chaser in the making if he doesn’t have a tough season this season.
“Nicky has lots of ammunition to go to war with at the big Festivals. We will see where we go next and see what the boss says.”
Equally pleased with the performance was Seven Barrows handler Henderson, who like Harris believes an outing at the Cheltenham Festival in March could come a season to soon.
Henderson added: “When we started with him he needed his wind attending to. He is very laid back because we thought he had a bit of speed.
“You ask him a question and you will always get the answer but you need to ask the question so he is quite hard to judge the way he does it. I think he is very deep like that, and there is a lot there.
“He handles the ground by the looks of it. He jumps well and I’m sure he will stay well. He has finished strongly and travelled nicely.
“We will stay at two and a half miles for the time being. That’s what you would like to do (run in another smaller race like this). If you can get two races into them before you go deep then they will know an awful lot more.
“I would have thought he probably wants another year before we think about the Cheltenham Festival. It is not as if he has beaten anything staggering. He has done the job nicely and is on the right road. I think he is a horse with a big future, especially over fences.”