Smooth success for Balder
Balder Succes got off the mark for the campaign with a smooth display in the Betfair Commits £40 Million To British Racing Hurdle at Haydock.
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The four-year-old was highly regarded by trainer Alan King during his juvenile year but after winning his first three starts in Britain, he failed to complete in either the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham or at Grade One level at Punchestown.
Having made an encouraging return to action when third in Wincanton's Elite Hurdle, Balder Succes was a 1-2 favourite coming down in class and he produced a smart performance in the hands of Wayne Hutchinson.
The tough-as-teak Hollow Tree predictably set out to make all, but Balder Succes ranged up to his quarters still hard on the bridle at the top of the home straight and he pulled clear between the final two flights to score by six lengths.
King's assistant, Noel Williams, said: "It is a bit of a relief as when you're such a short price you just don't want anything to go wrong.
"He's a horse who made good progress last year but when he got up to Grade One level it was all happening a bit quick for him.
"He is still a big baby and very much a work in progress, but he is more mature now than he was last season.
"He has still got to improve to compete in the championship division, but he is certainly going the right way.
"I'm not sure where he'll go next. That will be up to Alan and the owners.
"Hopefully he'll do well over hurdles but he has plenty of scope about him to jump a fence one day as well."
Brian Ellison's Yesyoucan just lasted home in a thrilling finish to the Try Racing Fixed Odds On Betfair Handicap Hurdle.
Market leader Double Ross adopted the front-running tactics that had seen him strike gold at Cheltenham last weekend and he looked likely to follow up under a penalty when kicking a couple of lengths clear soon after the home turn.
However, 14-1 shot Yesyoucan, his closest pursuer throughout, went by him in the straight under Danny Cook and just as it looked as though he had victory sewn up, there was further drama after the final flight.
The heavily-backed Black Thunder came from a mile back under Ruby Walsh, but his challenge was all too late and he was a neck behind passing the post.
Ellison said: "That was great. I think the first two probably had the run of the race as they've quickened up and left the rest, but this is a nice horse.
"That's only his fourth run for me and he's won twice and finished second twice.
"I don't think he needs the ground this testing. I wouldn't run him on firm but he'd be fine on most ground.
"We'll see what the handicapper does before we make any other plans."
Walsh picked up a two-day ban (December 9 and 10) for his use of the whip on Black Thunder but the dates of suspension are likely to be changed due to a Grade One in Ireland.
There was a turn-up in the Follow At BetfairRacing On Twitter Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race as long odds-on favourite Baltimoar had to play second fiddle to exciting newcomer Ballyben.
The Lucinda Russell-trained four-year-old was a 6-1 shot for this racecourse debut and was ridden patiently by conditional jockey Craig Nichol, letting 4-11 chance Baltimoar and Danehills Well dispute the lead.
Baltimoar mastered his closest rival soon after straightening up for home, but had no answer when Ballyben came up alongside and swept clear to score by 11 lengths.
Russell said: "He's a nice horse, but still very green and we couldn't run him last year because he had sore shins.
"Craig gave him a great ride and I think he's lost his 10lb claim now.
"He said he was very green going down the back but once he gave him a squeeze, he took off and did it well."
There was a sting in the tail for Nichol who picked up a two-day ban (December 9 and 10) after the stewards' found him guilty of careless riding following an incident turning into the straight.
Quartz De Thaix continued his resurgence with a fine weight carrying performance in the Better Prices On Betfair Mobile Handicap Chase under Liam Treadwell.
The eight-year-old endured a torrid season last term but as a result he started off the current campaign fairly treated on his best form.
The Venetia Williams inmate won as he liked on his Bangor comeback and was a 5-1 chance under 11st 12lb in this fiercely competitive event.
Always travelling kindly in the hands of his Grand National-winning jockey, he made good headway leaving the back straight and galloped on strongly in the testing conditions in the straight to come home six lengths ahead of favourite Universal Soldier.
Treadwell said: "He lost his way last season as he'd lost confidence in his jumping as much as anything, but Venetia has got him back on song.
"He got a lot of confidence from winning at Bangor and he has built on that today.
"The testing conditions were in his favour as it allowed me to take my time with him and build him up gradually. The ground is very holding.
"He is entered in the Welsh National and is tailor-made for a race like that."
In the other long-distance event, Monsieur Cadou (12-1) battled on dourly to land the Read Nicholls And McCain Exclusively On Betfair Handicap Chase.
Paddy Brennan bided his time on Tom George's seven-year-old before producing him to challenge between the last two fences and get the better of Jaunty Journey by half-a-length.