Bristol De Mai claims Betfair Chase crown again at Haydock Park
Bristol De Mai bounced back to his very best to win Saturday's Betfair Chase at Haydock for the second successive year.
He may not have come home 57 lengths clear as he did in 2017, but he put last season's first two in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in their place as he turned in a superb round of jumping for Daryl Jacob.
The 13-2 shot held the challenge of Colin Tizzard's Native River in game fashion with Thistlecrack in third, but evens favourite Might Bite weakened into last place after holding every chance.
Winning trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies said: "He wins everywhere when he's right. He's difficult to keep right.
"First and second time out last season he was superb, then he started getting his aches and pains and taking a few lame steps. Hopefully second time out this year will be at Kempton and we'll give them a hard time there."
Jacob added: "We've believed in this horse a long time. That was a big moment. He's a great horse. It obviously was a disadvantage it not being soft ground, but at this track, there's something about it he just loves and he feels a lot better."
Bristol De Mai could be joined in the King George VI Chase at Kempton by Thistlecrack and possibly Native River.
"They both ran right up to their best on this track," said Tizzard.
"Thistlecrack has been off for a year and everyone was writing him off. He has done his job. I'm sure he'll go to the King George.
"We're just trying to win the Gold Cup with Native River again. He'll be better if he ran more often, so he might go to the King George. We will have to sit and wait about that for a week."
Nicky Henderson admits he must rebuild Might Bite's lost confidence in time for his 32Red King George VI Chase defence after a "bombshell" defeat at Haydock.
The nine-year-old was sent off the evens favourite on his seasonal reappearance - but Might Bite and Nico de Boinville could only trail in a 29-length last behind course specialist Bristol De Mai..
Henderson reports nothing untoward has come to light in terms of significant injury, and Might Bite therefore remains on course for the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day - for which he is still a 7-2 favourite.
The Lambourn trainer told Racing UK: "He's fine. It was a bit of a bombshell, but he's perfectly sound and bright - and there are no injuries anyway, no reason for it behind that."
There is almost exactly a month until Might Bite must be back on his A game to see off challengers for his Christmas crown.
Henderson concedes it 'went to pieces' when faced with fences at Haydock which resulted in seven fallers in Saturday's three other chase races and have attracted criticism for being, in the assessment of de Boinville, 'too stiff and unfair'.
As part of the de-brief, however, Henderson has already consulted schooling and jumping guru Yogi Breisner, and is reassured about the way forward.
"Watching it again - not making excuses - I had a long chat with Yogi Breisner an hour ago, because he's a great assessor of these things, understands what jumping is all about, there's no doubt to me the fences were big and they were very solid," said the champion trainer.
"You know how fluently and flowing this horse jumps, and there was no rhythm to it at all. I think he was just fresh and well, and bounded down to one, and it gave him a fright.
"If you go back and watch his early days when he was chasing, the first time we ran him at Cheltenham he just ballooned five fences and that was the end of it. We had to put him away for a year."
That length of break is not an option any more. Henderson added: "Even when he went to Ffos Las for his first novice chase, he did the same thing - and got beat.
"Then he started to get belief in himself and I'm afraid, I think (at Haydock) he just lost his own belief and lost his confidence a little bit.
"Talking to Yogi, he said you could see that he just wasn't as fluent - he was having to work it out, and you take out a lot of mental and physical energy.
He wasn't tired. I just think his game had gone to pieces a little bit."
Henderson nonetheless remains unflustered, and optimistic, having seen less than a week ago how well Might Bite can jump under jockey Noel Fehily, who was a potential injury replacement for De Boinville.
"We'll work out together how we just put his confidence together and I'm not worried about that," he said.
"Noel Fehily came and schooled him on Monday, and he was brilliant. But our fences aren't quite what we were jumping yesterday.
"He's such a good jumper. But it's all about confidence, and I just think he lost it."