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Sunday Times - February 17

In racing as in football it takes time to rebuild a team. Alex Ferguson did it better than anyone, so how appropriate that he should have a share in Gold Cup hope Clan Des Obeaux whose victory at Ascot headlined a day in which his racing disciple Paul Nicholls had five winners on the card, 8 in all across the country to show he is right back at the top of the tree.

Doubly fitting that Clan Des Obeaux’s victory should come in the Betfair Denman Chase named after Nicholls’ massive chestnut chaser whose Gold Cup duels with his legendary stable mate Kauto Star were the star turns in what was then the leading team in the land. Kauto Star bowed out seven years ago and Denman had left a season before. The hole they left has taken a while to fill but Nicholls whole demeanour yesterday was of a giant refreshed,

“I have always said it would take time,” he said watching the Clan Des Obeaux replay afterwards, “but we have now got some lovely horses and this one is improving all the time and he will go for the Gold Cup with a massive chance.” In truth Clan Des Obeaux was a class above his three rivals but you had to be impressed with the slickness of his jumping and the instant response when Harry Cobden asked him for a spectacular effort at the last.

Yet if Clan Des Obeaux was impressive, Cyrname in the Betfair Chase was a revelation. A pillar-to-post victory last time against lesser opponents had shown his talent but this was against decent horses like Fox Norton, Politogue and last year’s winner, Waiting Patiently who was backed as odds-on favourite. This was not mere victory, it was destruction. After jumping brilliantly in the lead for Harry Cobden, Cyrname engaged some sort of equine turbocharge and left the others struggling like routed cavalry with 17 long lengths between him and Waiting Patiently at the line.

“I thought he was good, but I didn’t realise he was that good,” said Cobden who rode four winners on the afternoon, “words can’t describe how impressive he was.” Cyrname’s preference for right handed tracks has ruled him out of Cheltenham contention but he will be a major contender at the Punchestown Festival, not to mention next season’s King George VI Chase at right handed Kempton.

Definitely Cheltenham bound is Nicholls’ Grand Sancy who battled home under former Nicholls protégée Harry Skelton to narrowly land Wincanton’s Kingwell Hurdle from Sceau Royale. He will be aimed at the Supreme Novices Hurdle but talented and gutsy though he is, it is hard to see him being a match for the Nigel Twiston Davies trained Al Dancer who took Ascot’s normally ultra compeitive Betfair Hurdle with quite majestic authority.

In races like this the eye is usually running up and down the field picking up all sorts of different contenders. But yesterday the navy blue and white silks of a motionless Sam Twiston-Davies held the focus throughout and once Al Dancer was loosed in the straight there was only ever going to be one winner. This year’s Cheltenham is not all his trainer is looking forward to. “In terms of raw ability he is superb,” said Twiston Davies of his still unbeaten hurdler, “but look at the scope of him. You would imagine he would find fences even easier.”

While Ascot’s big winners are hoping to write their names in racing’s history, the card also saw the swansong of the 2015 Gold Cup winner Coneygree. For a long while he headed his field with much of the quick footed elan of his front running prime. But as the pace tightened, age weakened and Nico de Boinville wisely pulled him up to safeguard the memory of a glory day that should never fade.