Midnight River showed plenty of stamina to give Dan and Harry Skelton the best start to 2023, landing the Paddy Power New Year’s Day Handicap Chase at Cheltenham.
The eight-year-old advertised his credentials when a staying-on third in the valuable Paddy Power Gold Cup at the same venue on his previous run, albeit that was on the Old Course and on quicker ground.
The Midnight Legend gelding jumped with authority and always had the better of Stolen Silver after pinging the last fence, the 6-1 shot recording a two-and-a-quarter-length victory, with the rider’s spread-eagled arms celebration with his hands off the reins as they crossed the winning line, speaking volumes.
“He didn’t need the reins at all – he was just showing off,” smiled the winning trainer.
“That was really, really good. Obviously, it was a bit frustrating in the Paddy Power, as the ground wasn’t quite soft enough for him. It was what it was on the day and of course, you get a different winner. We all get our chances, because of the weather, and this has really suited him.
“But we should also take into consideration this track (New Course), which is much better for him that the other track (Old Course).
“Those two things coming together, the culmination of that, has helped us a lot. He has always been a very good horse. He threw himself on the floor last year at Carlisle, like I’ve never seen before. It was remarkable what he did.
“I thought we’d have real problems and we just had to nurse him round all last year, but this year it has been all about putting it together into a big day. Of course he has backed up a good run in the Paddy Power before coming here and he is going the right way.”
Options are open for Midnight River and Skelton added: “There is the Millions meeting at Lingfield – the Fleur De Lys is a consideration, but I wouldn’t be running him against 165-rated horses – then there’s back here on Trials Day.
“We could consider something more flashy, or you just hold fire and come back for the Plate or the Ultima if it was a bit quicker.”
Weveallbeencaught will also return to the Festival in March after making all the running and justifying 5-4 favouritism in the Ballymore Maiden Hurdle.
Sam Twiston-Davies had to work hard aboard the £210,00 purchase, who was beaten here on his return by Challow winner Hermes Allen, with trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies hinting that the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle – for which he was cut to 12-1 from 20-1 by Paddy Power – would be his preferred option, rather than the Ballymore.
“He doesn’t have to have three miles, but he will be better at three, you’d think,” said Twiston-Davies.
“He will come back in March for one of the two novice hurdles. I’m sure it will be the three-mile one. We don’t want to take on Hermes Allen. We’re not stupid.”
Rapper (8-1) continued the fine form of trainer Henry Daly when staying on relentlessly in the AIS Handicap Chase to score by eight and a half lengths under Richard Patrick.
“If you’d have watched him go round earlier in the year, you’d have said he’d have struggled here. Put a pair of cheekpieces on and he’s taken off,” said Daly, who was having his sixth winner in the last fortnight.
“I just thought, when he ran at Haydock, he was always on the back foot. We don’t know if it will work a second time, but he was totally different today.”
Fresh from Tea For Free’s success at Newbury on Saturday, trainer Charlie Longsdon and jockey Lily Pinchin teamed up again to score with Hector Javilex (8-1) in the three-mile Paddy Power Handicap Hurdle.
Longsdon said: “Three miles and slower ground suited. He had a trapped epiglottis on his first run in this country on slow ground. He couldn’t breath. Since then we have only run him on better ground, for no reason other than that is what was put in front of us.
“He relishes this slower ground and it looked like it today – that was a career-best by a country mile. We have now got to look at a Pertemps Qualifier, really. If he is going to be rated mid-130s, that does sneak him in the Pertemps, so we will have to think about that and come back in the spring, maybe.”