Metier rediscovered his best form to take home the lion’s share of £100,000 in the Sovereign Handicap Hurdle at Lingfield Park on Friday, the feature race on day one of the Winter Million.
Metier looked a star in the making for Harry Fry this time last year, when he relished testing ground to win the G1 Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown Park by 11 lengths.
Back on a similar surface today after a good fourth at Ascot before Christmas, the 11/4 favourite was ridden prominently by Sean Bowen and was never seriously challenged after taking the lead before the second hurdle.
Metier travelled best of all off the home turn and kept up the gallop in the straight to score by a length and a quarter from the staying-on Gowel Road. Irish raider Carrarea was nine lengths further back in third.
Fry, who won the opening contest with exciting mare Love Envoi, said: “That was the real Metier with conditions to suit.
“Sean was brilliant on him. We said we would line up and go our own tempo. He went quick to the first and then Sean dropped his hands and the horse galloped and jumped.
“We were a staying-on fourth at Ascot last time and we thought today that we would let him roll. Sean had him in a nice rhythm and they have put the others to the sword.
“This was the plan. He is in the Betfair Hurdle and if we had this sort of ground, he will be there. There are other good options in February as well.
“This is a fantastic prize. We have won three times the amount today that we did in the Grade 1 Tolworth last season. The Winter Million is a great new initiative and if this is an annual event, you can count on him being here.”
Bowen said: “We know Metier stays very well and is one of them that if you try to pull him when you’re going slower, he starts wrestling with you. Rather than that, you just leave him and he goes a good gallop.
“We have always thought that he was a good horse, and he was probably off a nice mark today. He is a proper horse on this ground, which is a problem because we don’t get it very often.
“Ground that is tacky and very hard work, he loves that – it feels like good ground on him. You don’t always get that ground but, when you do, he is a good horse.”
Metier wins the Sovereign Handicap Hurdle, picture John Hoy
Rest of the card
12.50pm £30,000 Winter Million Mares' Novices' Hurdle 2m
There were jubilant scenes in the winner’s enclosure after Love Envoi (11/2) maintained her unbeaten record in style for Harry Fry and the Noel Fehily Racing Syndicate.
Having moved strongly into the lead on the far turn, the Irish bumper graduate jumped accurately in the straight to fend off 13/8 favourite Nurse Susan by two and a half lengths.
This was the six-year-old’s third success since joining Fry, following up last month’s hurdling successes at Leicester and Warwick over longer trips.
Winning rider Johnny Burke said: “I would say Love Envoi’s biggest asset is handling the ground; she goes through it with such ease.
“Coming back in trip today wasn’t a concern, but she obviously hadn’t tried it before. I think the ground really brought her stamina into play.
“She just relishes the ground when others probably don’t. She is a big moving mare and will always want some dig.
“I think connections have their eye on the G2 mares’ novice at Sandown next month.”
1.20pm £45,000 Winter Million EBF Mares' Novices' Handicap Chase 2m 4f
Venetia Williams and Charlie Deutsch continued their rich vein of form with 5/2 favourite Fontaine Collonges, the first leg of a double for the trainer/jockey combination.
The seven-year-old was a beaten favourite at Cheltenham on her latest start but had no such problems today as she came clear in the straight to win by 10 lengths.
Williams said: “I thought there were challengers turning for home, but I am very pleased with the way Fontaine Collonges ran to the line.
“I was especially pleased with her jumping because in her earlier races she had been a little bit careful. You would rather that than careless, but she needed to pick up some pace at her fences.
“Charlie schooled her last week and that was the first time at home she had been forward and quick, and I thought ‘yes, that is what we want’.
“Ground like this is not crucial to her but it certainly is an asset that she handles it.”
1.50pm £50,000 racehorselotto.com Handicap Chase 2m
Williams and Deutsch registered a quick-fire double with Frero Banbou in the feature handicap chase on the card following a thrilling tussle with Eclair D’Ainay.
Long-time leader Eclair D’Ainay was still in front jumping the final fence but could not resist the challenge of Frero Banbou up the stands’ rail. The 9/4 favourite wrestled the advantage inside the final half furlong, with a length separating them at the line.
Deutsch said: “Frero Banbou was brave. He is quite quick, so I wanted to ride him from behind today and it worked, only just!
“I have ridden this horse handy a few times and, although we were running good races, we have been running the same race. I wanted to do something different.
“At the top of the hill, I wanted to get Harry [Skelton] covered because he looked like he was travelling the best. I wanted to sit with him for when we kicked down the hill and thankfully it paid off.”
He added: “Venetia has the horses in amazing form. I am lucky to be riding them. They look great at home and everyone looking after them does a really good job.”
2.25pm £50,000 Cazoo Hurdle 2m 7f
Top Ville Ben (6/1) has the Grand National on his agenda after successfully reverting to hurdles for Philip Kirby and Alain Cawley.
The 10-year-old, who had not run over hurdles in Britain since the spring of 2018, went from the front with his ears pricked before galloping home strongly in the straight to score by two-and-three-quarter lengths from Emitom.
Prior to today, Top Ville Ben finished third in the G3 Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase at Wetherby on Boxing Day, a race he won in 2019, having fallen in the Becher Chase over the national fences at Aintree.
Part-owner Neil Hassall said: “We would like to go for the Grand National as we thought he was loving it in the Becher before he fell.
“Now and again, he forgets what he is doing – he has done it over hurdles at Haydock, he fell at Cheltenham in the RSA and the same happened in the Becher. But that’s him, he will fall over two barrels on a bad day but can jump a 10-foot fence on a good day.
“Whether we will get the ground in the Grand National is a question mark because he loves this ground. He got them hard at it today a long way out.
“He will probably have one more run between now and then. Phil made a great call bringing him back over hurdles today, but I think he could possibly head to Doncaster next for the Grimthorpe Chase.”
3.00pm £50,000 weatherbys nhstallions.co.uk Novices' Chase 2m 7f 110y
Fantastikas (5/2) gained a deserved success for the Twiston-Davies team following two good runs in G2 company.
After winning on his chasing debut at Lingfield Park in November, the seven-year-old was second to Threeunderthrufive at Doncaster before finishing third behind L'Homme Presse in the Dipper Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.
Fantastikas looked to have the race sewn up approaching the final fence before idling on the run-in. Queenohearts closed quickly on the leader to force a photo, with Fantastikas holding on by a short-head.
Nigel Twiston-Davies said: “I thought we had got beat! Sam took it easy, but the horse won, which was a great relief.
“Fantastikas is in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase and the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham. He looks a right stayer, so I would think it will be the four-mile race.
“He has been milking the money this season even without winning. He won five grand here first time, then nine grand for finishing second at Doncaster and I think he got seven grand for finishing third at Cheltenham. Horses who pay their way, that’s what we like.”
4.08pm £21,050 Winter Million Handicap Chase 2m 4f
Gary Moore, who is the leading trainer over jumps at Lingfield Park this season, was on the scoresheet in the finale with Zhiguli (16/5). This was Moore’s 10th winner at the track from 34 runners.