Thyme Hill laid claim to the mantle of Britain’s leading staying novice hurdler when he extended an unbeaten start to his career over obstacles with victory in the Grade 1 Betway Challow Hurdle at Newbury on Saturday.
The Philip Hobbs-trained horse added to Grade 2 successes at Chepstow and Cheltenham by shaking off The Cashel Man to score by three lengths under champion jockey Richard Johnson.
Despite not jumping with his previous fluency Thyme Hill was too strong for the runner-up as he claimed a win that earned him quotes of 5-1 (from 8-1) favourite with Coral for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle and 7-1 for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Hobbs said: “His jumping concerned me a bit but Richard said he was just dossing a bit in behind the others and when he pulled him out he was slap bang on the bridle. But then he dossed a bit in front as well.
“I think his Cheltenham target will be ground dependent. If it is soft ground he will go two miles five, if it’s goodish he will probably go three miles.”
Thyme Hill was Hobbs’s first runner in the Challow since Fingal Bay captured the race for the stable in 2011.
“The last time we were stood here was with Fingal Bay who we said was the best horse we’d had and then he duly flopped,” Hobbs added. “I would think Thyme Hill might go straight to Cheltenham as another race before then might be one too many.”
Thyme Hill completed a Newbury treble for Johnson who reached his century for the season with a victory on the Tom Lacey-trained Fair Kate in the Betway Mares’ Handicap Hurdle, and followed up with another for Lacey on Dorking Boy in the Betway Heed Your Hunch Handicap Hurdle.
It was the 24th consecutive season that four times champion Johnson had hit the 100 winner mark as he ended with day on 102, and one win ahead of title rival Brian Hughes who had beaten him to the ton seven days earlier.
Main picture: Champion jockey Richard Johnson hits century with treble to reclaim lead in jumps title race.
Long term goal for Copperhead
Copperhead could have the 2020 Ladbrokes Trophy as his long term target after winning the race which remembers Mandarin, the first horse to win the historic Newbury prize twice in 1957 and 1961 when it was known as the Hennessy Gold Cup.
A 9lb rise for a stylish victory at Wincanton did not hinder the five-year-old who coasted towards the front approaching the last fence and was pushed out by Harry Cobden to beat Moving In Style by three and a quarter lengths.
Winning trainer Colin Tizzard has won two of the last four Ladbrokes Trophys and saddled Elegant Escape to finish third this year.
His son Joe said: “We bought Copperhead as a store and sometimes we have to remind ourselves that he is still a five-year-old. We said we would give him time after he won at Wincanton which was only three weeks ago,
“He is a lovely big long-striding horse who races behind the bridle so he always saves a bit. Once he got to the front he just pricks his ears.
“You could see him back here at the end of November next year. He ran off 134 today so he is going to be right in the mix as a second season chaser and he is going in the right direction. If he keeps improving why not?”
More honours for Henderson
Newly recognised trainer Nicky Henderson marked his awarding of an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List in typical fashion at Newbury with a double from the impressive Mister Coffey and Burbank.
The four-year-old, who joined the stable after being bought from Harry Whittington for £340,000 following a Huntingdon bumper win in April, only needed to be pushed out to beat Shakem Up’ Arry in the Betway Introductory Hurdle by a length and three quarters. Burbank, ridden by Jerry McGrath, won the closing Betway Novices’ Handicap Chase.
“Mister Coffey is going to be a spectacular horse,” said Henderson. “All Nico was trying to do was mind him all the way around. He got there on the bridle and he only had to squeeze him up and push him and let him learn a little bit more. He has a very bright future.”
Henderson, who has saddled 11 winners at Newbury this season, added: “I am honoured to receive an OBE, but it’s on behalf of everybody. Racing has been very good to us for a lot of years.”
Defi Sacre won for the second time at Newbury in ten days for trainer Richard Hobson, edging a three-way photo-finish by a short head, but had to survive a 30 minute stewards’ inquiry into interference on the run-in before the result was confirmed.