Thyme Hill was made to work hard by The Cashel Man to land the odds in the Betway Challow Novices’ Hurdle at Newbury.
Philip Hobbs’ big hope finished third in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham in March and had made the perfect start to life over hurdles, winning his first two.
On the back of those efforts Thyme Hill was sent off the 4-6 favourite, but Richard Johnson was niggling him along from an early stage.
The Cashel Man was allowed an easy lead in front and tried to stretch the field turning in, but Thyme Hill loomed up alongside him on the bridle.
A blunder at the last gave The Cashel Man another chance, but Johnson kept his mount up to his work to win by a length and a half.
Hobbs is now favouring heading straight to the Cheltenham Festival in March with Thyme Hill, although the ground is likely to prove crucial in deciding whether to tackle the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle or the three-mile Albert Bartlett.
He said: “He stays well. He (Johnson) said he dossed a bit when he got to the front.
“No (his jumping wasn’t as good) and that’s what concerned me a bit, but he said he was just dossing in behind the others. He has pulled him wide coming into the straight and he was slap bang on the bridle, but then he has dossed in front as well.
“I think it will be ground dependant (at Cheltenham). If it is soft ground he will go two-miles-five, but if it was goodish ground he would probably go three miles.
“He has done everything fantastically well and, as you can see, he is not the biggest horse in the world, but that has not stopped him still being very good.
“Last time we stood here after the Challow Hurdle when Fingal Bay won it (in 2011), we said he was the best horse we had and he duly flopped.
“I’d probably see how he is, but my first reaction is we would go straight to Cheltenham as he is not the sort of horse that wants to be running every week.
“Last year he got stronger through the season as he was not sticking the racing very well, although he won his first race at Worcester and was second in a Listed race at Cheltenham before being third at the Festival.
“He was a horse that wasn’t going to stand a lot of racing at that stage. He is much better now and will get stronger and his constitution will get better with time.
“I’d just be concerned if he raced before Cheltenham it might be one race too many.”
Nicky Henderson is also planning to head to Cheltenham with The Cashel Man, with the Albert Bartlett on his radar along with a handicap option.
He said: “He ran a great race as I thought he would actually hate the ground. He ran a blinding race and fought back well.
“He definitely wants better ground and we might step him up to three miles as he got two-miles-five on the Flat.
“We might try to get him qualified for the Pertemps, but the handicapper might not let us, so we might have to go down the Albert Bartlett route.”