Esprit Du Large dug deep up the Sandown hill to spring a minor surprise in the Read Road To Cheltenham At racingtv.com Henry VIII Novices’ Chase.
Narrowly beaten on his fencing debut at Carlisle in October, the Evan Williams-trained five-year-old went one better at Exeter last month, but faced a big step up in class for this Grade One contest.
Getting weight from his elders, Torpillo was the clear favourite at 13-8, with former Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner Summerville Boy, high-class hurdler Grand Sancy and previously-unbeaten chaser Nube Negra rated his chief threats.
However, Esprit Du Large (14-1) had not read the script, travelling strongly and jumping accurately throughout under Adam Wedge, and he turned for home with only Nube Negra to worry about.
Both horses were slick at the final obstacle and with Esprit Du Large refused to bend on the run-in, passing the post a length and three-quarters to the good.
Williams said: “To get runners in these races is very hard. It is great to do it for Mr and Mrs Rucker (owners). I’ve had a couple of Grade One winners before, but to do it for them means an awful lot.
“I could say lots of things, but they are invaluable and that sums it up. It is emotional. He is a store horse that we bought and he has come through and won a Grade One.
“He is a nice horse. He progressed last time. I just thought looking through them it was worth a crack at it. You roll the dice and sometimes it comes right, but a lot of the time it goes wrong.
“It’s my first Grade One in England. I’ve won one in Wales and Ireland, but never in England.
“Let’s see how the form of the race works out. There is one thing for sure, myself and Mr and Mrs Rucker have never been dreamers, and we don’t know if this was a good or a bad Grade One yet.
“We will enjoy today and worry about the rest of the season after.”
It was a first top-level success for Wedge, who said: “It is what we work for every day – to get a winner like this.
“I’ve been there (with Williams) since I was a 10lb claimer. It’s brilliant.”
Dan Skelton was proud of the performance of Nube Negra in defeat.
“His jumping is brilliant and it was a magic run. The ground was a little bit softer than we’d ideally want, but that’s no excuse and he’s kept on. Credit to the winner, who stayed very well and we couldn’t quite get him,” said Skelton.
“He’ll go to the Kingmaker at Warwick and then Aintree. We’ll miss Cheltenham.”
Grand Sancy was a long way back in third, with Torpillo fourth.
Summerville Boy made a bad blunder in the back straight and came to grief at the following water jump.
A memorable afternoon for the Esprit Du Large team got even better when Mack The Man (6-1) made it two wins from as many starts this season in the Listed Jumeirah Hotels And Resorts December Handicap Hurdle.
Williams said: “We never thought we could win a Listed race with this fellow at the start of the season, so in a way it is mission accomplished.”