Sporting John maintained his unbeaten record with a striking display in the Thames Materials Novices’ Hurdle at Ascot.
Having won twice at Exeter previously, Philip Hobbs’ charge faced by far his stiffest test to date up against Colin Tizzard’s Master Debonair, who is fancied in some quarters for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
It was Tizzard’s runner that set the pace, with Barry Geraghty content to travel in his slipstream for much of the contest on Sporting John.
Turning into the straight, Jonjo O’Neill junior was sending out distress signals on the favourite as Sporting John (6-4) breezed alongside him.
A squeeze from Geraghty saw Sporting John shoot clear, as Pipesmoker came through to grab second, beaten six and a half lengths at the line.
“I’m delighted and he did it very well. Barry thinks he has got plenty enough pace for two miles, but he obviously stays two and a half well. You could do whatever at this stage,” Hobbs said.
“I thought the ground was plenty soft enough for him. He did finish off well.
“Maybe at this stage going a bit further might be the thing to do. He probably thought coming here was a bit different, but that’s only the fourth run of his life.
“He is a lovely horse and he has a very good future – whatever he does over hurdles he will be better over fences. He is something to look forward to, but is also good in the short term.
“Hopefully he has got enough experience (for Cheltenham) as he has had three hurdle races and a point-to-point.”
Hobbs also landed the Ascot Local Sports & Social Clubs Handicap Hurdle with 2-1 favourite St Barts.
Ballyoptic warmed up for a second outing in the Randox Health Grand National at Aintree in April with an impressive front-running victory in the Keltbray Swinley Chase.
The Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained 10-year-old ground his rivals into submission with a near foot-perfect round of jumping in the three-mile Listed prize to add to earlier victories this season at Chepstow and in the Grade Two Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby.
Finding plenty for pressure from the sharp end, Ballyoptic, who fell at the fourth-last in the Aintree marathon 12 months ago, stayed on well to defeat Valtor by eight and a half lengths.
Twiston-Davies said of the 8-1 winner: “That was very good. It was a proper Grand National trial and the handicapper can’t do anything with the weight.
“He is a better horse this season than when he fell at the fourth-last (in the National) last year when he was going OK.
“When you have got a horse like this, you go straight to the National now. It was difficult old ground out there, but he really finished the race off very well.
“He has won three races this season and seems to be improving. I’d imagine he will be Sam’s (Twiston-Davies) ride.”
Neil King may have taken the wrong route with Nordano (8-1) on his last start, but his decision to try the four-year-old over an extended two miles and three furlongs for the first time was vindicated with a facile 16-length success in the Give The Gift Of Ascot Annual Membership Handicap Hurdle.
King said: “I ran him in the juvenile hurdle here at the last meeting and it was a toss up between the handicap or the juvenile, and I went the juvenile route.
“All the little horse does is tries, gallops and stays. He is not very quick, but he just gallops and conditions today were perfect off 10 stone. The step up in trip has helped today.”
A return to Ascot could be on the cards for Nordano as opposed to an outing in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
King said: “He will have an entry in the Fred Winter, but he would want the ground like this or worse, otherwise they would run him off his feet.
“Until I messed his handicap mark up, I was thinking of a juvenile handicap hurdle back here over two-miles-three and there is also the two-four-juvenile hurdle at Newbury.”
Paul Nicholls earmarked a trip to Aintree for Sabrina (11-2), who followed in the hoofprints of stablemate Silver Forever in winning the British EBF Mares’ Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race by 13 lengths.
He said: “We just gave her time to grow as she was quite immature. As she has got older, she has got bigger and stronger. She is not unlike Silver Forever, who won the race last year.
“I expect if we go for a big one with her, it would be the Grade Two at Aintree. She is a nice filly and will make a lovely novice hurdler.”