Smooth Stepper stayed on through the Haydock mud to spring a surprise in the Unibet Grand National Trial Handicap Chase.
Alex Hales’ veteran was the 33-1 outsider of the 10-strong field – yet as others wilted in the extreme stamina test over an extended three and a half miles, Harry Bannister conjured a late surge after the last as the bottom weight outdid long-time leader Lord Du Mesnil.
Smooth Stepper, who does not have a Grand National entry, then held off the runner-up’s rally to win by a length and a half – with another 19 back to 11-4 favourite Yala Enki in third.
A jubilant Hales said: “It’s a huge win for us. We’ve had a great season, and this is just the icing on the cake.
“It’s brilliant for everyone at home, who work tirelessly.
“We just felt the horse has always wanted a step up in trip, and I felt he was well handicapped. We thought we’d take a chance off a low weight – and it’s worked out.
“There was a bit of optimism coming here. He was in good order at home, and there is no way we thought we were just here for the day out.”
On future plans for the 11-year-old, the Northamptonshire trainer added: “He’ll certainly have an entry in the Midlands National. We’ll have a look at it, but we’ll enjoy today – it’s the biggest win of my training career.
“This is our 20th winner of the season, and we’ve only got 25 horses in. They’ve just been healthy – we haven’t done anything different.”
Bannister was banned for four days for using his whip above the permitted level from the third-last fence.
Richard Hobson was also hugely encouraged by Lord Du Mesnil’s performance, despite his narrow failure to run up a Haydock hat-trick this season.
“We were really up against it, coming here,” said the Cotswolds trainer.
“He did something silly in his stable about 10 days after he won the Last Fling Chase – he’d got cast and had his leg up, and that took a week to get over.
“Then we got an abscess – so for two and a half or three weeks, we couldn’t even train him.
“This race was coming up rapidly, and I said to the lads (owners) it might just be a bit tight. I’d say today, that’s what’s caught him out.
“With his enthusiastic style of running and his jumping in that ground, it just showed at the end that he’d missed a bit of work.”
Lord Du Mesnil has an Aintree entry, but Hobson may stay patient and wait another year.
“We’ve got a dream horse, and I reckon the National might just be a year too early,” he added.
“I’d say we won’t run in the National – unless it was monsoon-like conditions, I think we’d give it a miss.
“We’ve got four or five years ahead of us with a lovely horse. We’re just going to enjoy him and make sure the horse is happy and the lads are having a good time.
“I’d say if we get the ground at Cheltenham, the National Hunt Chase would be his ideal race.
“Like I’ve always said, conditions are key to this horse. If it keeps raining, we might go to Cheltenham.”
Bryony Frost, who had to settle for an honourable third on Yala Enki, said: “It was very hard work, and he had quite a lot of weight.
“He’s still run a really good race – he’s just got tired in the latter stages.
“It might sound bizarre, but he felt like he didn’t want it that soft, because he preferred it better at Taunton.”
One For Arthur, winner of the 2017 Grand National, was reported to be suffering a fibrillating heart after being pulled up.