Belfast Telegraph

Hunt had a Ball and there’s more to come

By Robert Fenton

Cheltenham threw up its highs and lows on the betting front, not least the £1m collected by the Irish stable lad Conor Murphy with is £50 ante-post accumulator on five of Nicky Henderson winners.

And to think he watched the final leg lying on a sofa nursing a hangover from celebrating Henderson's four winners the previous day! Jimmy Nesbitt's Riverside Theatre, winner of a dramatic Ryanair Chase, provided the perfect cure and the stuff of dreams. The bet placed at Christmas, actually amounted to £3m in view of some very big prices but was subject to a £1m limit.

Then we had the gamble of gambles landed on Donald McCain's Son of Flicka which was backed in from early morning odds of 66-1 to 16-1 for the Coral Cup, earning owner Phil Williams a £900,000 touch.

On the punting downside, big money went down on defeats for Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle, Sizing Europe who was most unlucky in the Champion Chase and Boston Bob seen as an Irish banker in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle.

Of all the stories surrounding the meeting, the fairytale moment centred around the victory of Hunt Ball in the last race on the first day. Turn the clock back to November when he ran in a very ordinary low grade novice chase at Folkestone off a mark of 69. Suggestions of a Festival success would not have been anywhere on the radar. Even the colourful owner Anthony Knott, a Welsh dairy farmer who bought the horse for a few hundred pounds, initially thought he had made a major mistake.

Since then, Hunt Ball has got better and better and better and when he won for the seventh time in last week's Pulteneny Land Investments Handicap Chase (2m4f), he was given another 12lb hike in the handicap to a rating of 154. That means he has improved 85lbs from that first outing and earned Knott £500,000 in the process.

The owner told everyone who would listen his horse was a 'certainty' for Cheltenham and was proved right when Hunt Ball won easily by eight lengths at odds of 13-2. Such was his confidence, he was tempted to put the horse into the Gold Cup and Hunt Ball wouldn't have be out of place.

There is always next year and first-season and he has been given quotes ranging from 20-1 to 33-1.

Next up for this, the most improved horse this season, is the Grade 1 Aintree Bowl over three miles which determine if he can stay further, something jockey Nick Schoffield has no doubts about. It will also determine whether he is better than being a mere handicapper. To be thinking of taking on the Kauto Star and Long Run's of this world, he would need to find another 20lbs or more but who's to say he won't?

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