Frodon repelled the late charge of Elegant Escape to claim a fourth win at Cheltenham in the BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase.
Having carried a big weight to victory in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup at the track last month, the Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon had earned his step into open company for this recognised trial for the Cheltenham Gold Cup and was a 9-4 chance under regular partner Bryony Frost.
Despite doubts about his stamina – having never previously won over further than two miles and five furlongs – Frodon soon adopted his customary pace-setting role and fenced and travelled with his usual exuberance for much of the three-mile-one-furlong journey.
After eventually mastering the outsider Allysson Monterg, Frodon moved into the straight seemingly in control.
However, having been off the bridle some way from home, Colin Tizzard’s Welsh Grand National winner and 2-1 favourite Elegant Escape’s stamina reserves kicked in after the final fence to close down the leader.
But the admirable Frodon had enough in the tank to hold him at bay by three-quarters of a length and Nicholls soon confirmed a tilt at the blue riband in less than six weeks’ time is now on the cards.
Nicholls said: “I don’t think he has the pace to win a Ryanair. I think the Gold Cup is more suitable for him as he stays and I just said to Paul (Vogt, owner) beforehand that he has had six or seven weeks off and he looked a gallop short and will improve for today.
“I always hate coming back after a break, but that was astonishing. He just idles a bit in front, then stays on again.
“He was giving them weight as well, and I still feel there is a bit of improvement in him.
“He loves the track and is improving rapidly. He is rated 169 and that would have put him second in last year’s Gold Cup. In a year that is quite open, I’m definitely dead keen to go.
“The Gold Cup is a more realistic trip, because he gets them off the bridle with his jumping.”
Frodon was cut to as short as 14-1 for the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup on March 15.
Frost said: “I say it all the time – he is a complete pleasure (to ride). I’ve never ridden a horse that has a heart like him, and over the last two it is visible for everyone to see.
“You can see how brave and awesome he is. He is the most amazing person and when I call upon on him, he answers every time.
“There is never a doubt out there as he is always travelling and jumping. The people coming in here cheering him on – it’s incredible the amount of support me and that horse have had.
“It’s great Mr and Mrs Vogt have kept me on him after losing my claim. That was a day I could have lost him. Imagine losing a horse like him in your career.”
Elegant Escape was also widely cut for the Gold Cup despite his defeat, and Tizzard feels the extra distance of the Festival feature will suit.
He said: “That was pretty satisfying. To be critical, he looked like he was outpaced in the country, but then on a positive note he made up four or five lengths after the last on Frodon.
“At the end of the day it was a lovely Gold Cup trial. He has got a bit to find but I’m sure if the ground comes up a bit softer he will keep on galloping better than the others and the extra furlong will help him.
“He won’t go anywhere else now, but he will have an entry in the Grand National as well.”
Nicky Henderson was similarly pleased with the performance of the third home Terrefort, who was making his first appearance since a disappointing display on his seasonal reappearance at Sandown in November.
Henderson said: “Terrefort ran a super race. To be fair to him, that was like his first run of the season, because Aintree (last April) was his last proper run.
“I thought he was going to get there, then at two out he just blew up – which I half expected.
“I don’t think he will have another run between now and Cheltenham, but I don’t know which race he will go for there yet.”