Simonsig accomplishes mission
Simonsig drained the pressure from a tense Nicky Henderson with a flawless novice chasing initiation at Ascot.
Already one of the marquee names in a stable overflowing with stars, the powerful grey is now an even shorter favourite for next year's Arkle after his emphatic victory in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle at the previous Cheltenham Festival.
It soon became a matter of Simonsig (2-9 favourite) against the fences, as three of his four rivals in the Grade Two Betfred Novices' Chase departed at the first two obstacles entering the final circuit, and Sulpius was soon struggling to keep pace himself.
This was Simonsig's first outing since Aintree in April and he was visibly straining at the leash, so Barry Geraghty let him loose leaving Swinley Bottom in the back straight and he had a cut at a few fences before coasting some 49 lengths clear.
"I suppose we haven't learned much, but we know he can do this now," said Henderson.
"He will be an awful lot better when going a shade quicker, but Barry did let him go and jump them.
"This was as good a novice hurdler as I've seen in a long time and we seriously thought about him being a Champion Hurdle horse, but after a long talk over the summer we decided to send him chasing."
The trainer stopped short of comparing Simonsig with his beloved Sprinter Sacre, last season's Arkle hero, as he said jumping came "so easily" to the Champion Chase favourite, but the grey still takes very high rank.
"He's in the Wayward Lad on the 27th (at Kempton on Thursday)," he said.
"I'd say it's unlikely, but I'm not ruling it in or out.
"Remittance Man won at Leicester on a Tuesday so easily that we ran him again at Newbury on a Saturday and he won by something like 25 lengths."
Queen Mother and Arkle winner Remittance Man actually took this very race back in 1990, as well as following up in the Wayward Lad.
Geraghty added: "That was very much mission accomplished. He got the revs up at one or two but listened to me every time, and he was foot-perfect at the last three. You couldn't ask for much better around a track like here.
"He's a two-miler, not a three-miler. I wasn't bothered he was a little bit keen, that's what you want with a good horse."
Perhaps a horse to tread the same sort of future path is Puffin Billy, who is very much the apple of trainer Oliver Sherwood's eye.
Geraghty deputised for the suspended Leighton Aspell in the Mitie Kennel Gate Novices' Hurdle and the step up to Graded level was still not enough to take the 4-9 favourite off the bridle for the first time in four starts.
"I wanted to get another run into him, and it was either here or Kempton on Boxing Day, which was the only other race for him to go for," said Sherwood.
"I don't want him to have too many races on heavy ground, I think he'll go on anything, and he will probably have one more run at the end of January or the beginning of February.
"He'll have entries in both the two-mile (Supreme) and two-and-a-half (Neptune) at Cheltenham and it will depend on the ground."
Coral offer 10-1 for both races.
Geraghty was back with Henderson for his treble as handsome Coolmore newcomer Captain Cutter (11-4) thwarted more experienced 8-11 favourite King's Palace in the Ascot Championship bumper.
"Do we stay in bumpers or do we go hurdling? We'll have to talk," Henderson said.
"He's been in training for two years but has had problems."
Ballytober (11-2) survived a scary moment in the Fernham Homes "National Hunt" Maiden Hurdle when diving to the left on the run-in but the line came in time for Philip Hobbs' runner.
Jockey Richard Johnson said: "He was off for a year with a problem and it was only his second run over hurdles, so there was a lot to look at for him.
"It was a bit of a jink, but the experience will have done him a lot of good."
Paddy Brennan was given a four-day ban (January 4, 6-8) for breaching the whip rule on third-placed Fiddlers Bid, but did at least take the Barclays Handicap Hurdle on Farmer Matt (9-4 joint-favourite).
A fine tactical ride from Tony McCoy saw Jonjo O'Neill's Eastlake (9-1) win for the first time since May in the Liberum Capital Novices' Handicap Chase.
"We've been trying to get him to finish his races better but he's a horse that does everything on the bridle," said McCoy.
"He's come back in trip a bit now, and he jumped great."