Defi du Seuil proves age can trump experience to underline Festival credentials

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Barry Geraghty riding Defi Du Seuil to win Matchbook Clarence House Chase from Un De Sceaux at Ascot
Barry Geraghty riding Defi Du Seuil to win Matchbook Clarence House Chase from Un De Sceaux at Ascot

You could sense the nerves and feel the relief as Defi du Seuil underlined his Cheltenham Festival ambitions in impressive style at Ascot, writes James Toney.

Philip Hobbs has been there and done it in a long and storied training career but the heart must of been thumping as his charge moved alongside the much-loved Un de Sceaux in the final stages of the Matchbook Clarence House Chase.

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The heavy conditions were new territory and Un de Sceaux, despite his advancing age, usually shines when the best model of travel is a submarine.

However, Hobbs need not have worried. Last year Defi won by a neck when these two clashed at Sandown, this time the winning margin was a confident two and three-quarter lengths.

Un de Sceaux - a horse who owes connections nothing but still gives them everything - had run from the front but a huge jump at the penultimate fence put this encounter out of reach, jockey Barry Geraghty surging clear in a flurry of flying mud.

It's a win that will rightly earn Defi du Seuil favourite status for the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham, edging ahead of Altior, who is seeking a historic third win in the two mile showpiece.

Altior's watching trainer Nicky Henderson was quick to congratulate Hobbs - but surely thoughts of their imminent Prestbury Park showdown wouldn't have been far from his mind.

"We were very hopeful we might win again but I couldn't imagine he was going to win that easily," admitted Hobbs.

"We were hoping we would beat Un De Sceaux again but by no means was it certain. It was unexpected to beat him like that but when you are travelling very easily, you do appear to go past them very quickly.

"As for Cheltenham, nothing is definite yet and there's no need for us to decide now.

"He's in the Ryanair Chase as well as the Champion Chase but I suppose with the pace he showed there means the Champion Chase seems more likely. We'll see nearer the time."

Willie Mullins is only missing one big race at Cheltenham from his collection - Un de Sceaux's defeat in the Champion Chase to Sprinter Sacre four years ago still stings.

His best chance, Chacun pour Soi, struggled on the ground at Punchestown at Christmas, but is expected to improve for the run at the Dublin Racing Festival next month, where he'll contest the Dublin Chase.

Un de Sceaux's connections, in their blue pale and orange scarves, applauded their old warrior back into the winners' enclosure, the popular horse arguably getting a better reception than the winner.

By all accounts he's still an enthusiastic trainer and no there is no reason for this to be the final chapter but while defeat isn't the end - his days at top level are now surely over.

"We will get him home and see and have a chat about what to do next," said Mullins.

"I thought the winner has improved and he won very well. We didn't improve from our last run, so I was very disappointed but that is the way it is.

"I thought ground conditions would suit us but Paul Townend said he thought he didn't fire."

Elsewhere, Robbie Power believes the path to the Grand National will go through Cheltenham for classy mare Magic of Light.

Jessica Harrington's nine-year old brilliantly coped with attritional heavy ground at Ascot, staying on strongly to underline her Aintree credentials.

Second to Tiger Roll in last year's Grand National, Power was impressed by her strength as she followed up on a 99 length chase win before Christmas with a flawless trip over hurdles.

While all the talk is of Tiger Roll's tilt at immortality at Aintree, as Gordon Elliott's superstar seeks a third straight win, Harrington might be dreaming of making history too - with Nickel Coin the last of 13 mares to win the race back in 1951.

Magic of Light was a 66-1 shot for last year's National, coming into the race on the back of a seventh place in the Ultima Handicap Chase at Cheltenham.

And this time Power thinks another trip over hurdles would be a better prep - despite the race being one of the hottest at the Festival.

"I was really impressive when I schooled her the other week and there was no problem with the ground, she's got even stronger than last year and is getting better and better," said Power.

"Obviously we'll see what Jessica thinks but I'd say the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham would be perfect before looking to Aintree."

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