William Henry secured the biggest success of his career as he stayed on from a highly improbable position to surge home in the Stella Artois National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell.
Nicky Henderson’s 10-year-old gained his first victory since landing the Coral Cup at the Cheltenham Festival last March – powering up the run-in, after appearing outpaced and booked for third at best.
William Henry looked as if his chance had all but gone mid-way through the two-mile-three Grade Two feature, but the 5-1 shot found a second wind under Nico de Boinville.
As Quel Destin and Thomas Darby traded blows up front, William Henry gathered unexpected momentum from the back of the last before passing both on the climb to the line to score by a length and a half.
De Boinville said: “I thought we were beat after the first hurdle, because I didn’t think he was enjoying that really heavy ground. Then I just thought we will have to settle down, and sit and suffer and settle for third if we can.
“He has turned in off the all-weather (bend into the straight) and he has seemed to pick up. We had bit of full steam and came with a wet sail. I think the others slightly stopped in front – and we have kept going.”
William Henry had produced a similar late effort to get up by a short head at Cheltenham last March.
De Boinville added: “We know he is a very good finisher, because he finished well in the Coral Cup last year. It was a surprise – but it was great.
“It wouldn’t be his ideal ground, but he is a great horse – because he has won a Coral Cup and a Lanzarote and now he has won a National Spirit – so we can be happy with him.”
Assessing future plans for William Henry, who holds entries in both the Coral Cup and Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham next month, De Boinville was unsure which route will be taken.
He said: “I don’t know where we go now.
“It’s hard enough, because he is fairly highly handicapped. This is a nice prize to pick up, so we are delighted we came here today.”
Paul Nicholls has not ruled out a trip to the Festival for runner-up Quel Destin, who holds an entry in the Randox Health County Hurdle.
He said: “He is in the County Hurdle – he would be nearly top weight in that, but we will have a look at it. He has been an amazing horse, and he will be a great chaser next season.
“(Jockey) Sam (Twiston-Davies) said he idled after the back of the last, and the other one picked up and stayed on. He could have just done with Thomas Darby taking him a bit further.
“He has run really well, and run another blinding race, but I could see what was going to happen after they jumped the last.”
As for beaten favourite Thomas Darby, who finished back in third, his trainer Olly Murphy insisted he will return to Grade One level in the Aintree Hurdle.
“He’s run disappointingly and got beaten, and was the third best horse on the day,” said Murphy.
“He ended up going too hard, and setting the race up for a finisher. Sam Twiston-Davies’ horse shied at the start, and Thomas Darby ended up in front – which wasn’t ideal.
“We will still go for the Aintree Hurdle, and going back on better ground will help him.”