If The Cap Fits emerged victorious after a pulsating climax to the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle at Aintree.
A field of 15 runners went to post for the three-mile Grade One and the focus of attention pre-race was Gordon Elliott’s prolific mare Apple’s Jade, who was bidding to bounce back from a disappointing run when favourite for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham last month.
She was a warm order to rediscover the winning trail as the 5-6 market leader and for much of the way she appeared in complete control, as she adopted her customary pacesetting role in the hands of Jack Kennedy.
However, it was clear early in the home straight she had a real race on her hands, with both Harry Fry’s If The Cap Fits and Dan Skelton’s Mares’ Hurdle winner Roksana moving into contention.
There was little to choose between the trio jumping the final flight and all three horses gave their all up the run-in.
In the final strides Apple’s Jade wilted slightly and If The Cap Fits and Roksana flashed by the post almost as one, but the judge confirmed the former had won by a head – providing jockey Sean Bowen with his first top-level success.
Apple’s Jade was only a neck further away in third.
If The Cap Fits did not initially return to the winner’s enclosure, but was reported to be none the worse by his trainer.
Fry said: “The horse is fine. He was taken to the wash-down area first as a precaution – they didn’t want to take any chances.
“When he made a bad mistake at the last I thought that was us cooked. He had every excuse to give up – he didn’t have much room, the gap was tiny, but he wanted it so badly. He’s run his heart out.
“With Paul and Clare (Rooney, owners) here today it’s a fantastic occasion. He’s been really consistent all season and we’ve always thought he was a high calibre horse and now he’s a Grade One winner.
“It’s a great team effort, these Grade Ones are pretty rare.”
Bowen was taking over in the saddle from the recently-retired Noel Fehily.
Fry added: “Obviously with Noel retiring, he thought an awful lot of the horse and played a big part in getting the horse to this point. Sean benefited today and that’s his first Grade One, so it’s great.
“That’s our first winner at the Aintree Festival, we’ve been trying long enough.
“I don’t know what we’ll do next year, we’ll just enjoy today first.”
Skelton was proud of the performance of Roksana.
He said: “To be fair to the winner he would have been an unlucky loser as he made a hell of a mistake at the last and he was going away after the line. Fair play – we have been beaten by a very good horse on the day.
“We are not knocking what we have done. She’s jumped well, travelled well and ran into the race well. It was just not quite enough.
“We were fortuitous at Cheltenham (hot favourite Benie Des Dieux fell at the last hurdle), but today she has shown she is a very good mare and I hope to have her for a good few years to keep contesting those races.
“I’ll give her one run before going to Cheltenham for the Mares’ Hurdle again next year before coming back here again.”
Elliott said of Apple’s Jade: “Jack said she was not the mare she was during the early part of the season. She has won 10 Grade Ones now. She is home in one piece and that is all we care about.
“We will have her back for next year. We will see how she is and if she is OK we will go to Punchestown.
“She has been beaten a neck in a Grade One, so we shouldn’t be disappointed – she is not a machine.
“It was a Grade One and there was no hiding place, so I’m not going to make an excuse. I wouldn’t say she didn’t stay the trip.”