Verdana Blue ended the long unbeaten run of dual champion hurdler Buveur D’Air in the Unibet Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
Both horses are trained by Nicky Henderson, and they had it between them from the second-last, where it looked like 1/4 favourite Buveur D’Air was always just going to do enough to hold on.
He had made a terrible blunder at the third-last, hardly taking off, although it barely checked his momentum and Barry Geraghty seemingly had everything under control as he took up the running from Global Citizen.
However, Nico de Boinville had yet to ask the mare Verdana Blue (11/2) for everything and she was gaining with every stride after the last.
Buveur D’Air had not been beaten over hurdles since the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2016, and while he continued to respond for Geraghty, Verdana Blue had too much speed for him this time, providing Henderson with an eighth win in the race.
The trainer said: "It is a little bit (strange feeling). You don't want him beaten. Barry is very good. You say you are sorry and I mean that, I will say that to J.P. (McManus), too. But I know he will say all is fair in love and war.
"Thank goodness it was one of our own. Barry didn't think it made a whole lot of difference (mistake at third-last). It didn't stop him. He galloped merrily on. It is the second time he has gone through a hurdle. He said 'no excuses'.
"She is a very good mare and she always has been when you get her on decent ground, as she is no good on soft ground. Unless you can promise it will be good to firm it will be a waste of time (training for Champion Hurdle).
"The plan was to go for the £200,000 stayers' race (on the flat) at Lingfield on Good Friday, as my jockey that day (when winning on the Flat at Kempton), Luke Morris, said that is what she will win."
He added: "Buveur will go to either Sandown (Contenders Hurdle) or Wincanton (Kingwell) as they are the only two you have got. Barry is not worried as he said he has won his race. Round here on that ground she is very good."
La Bague Au Roi produced a performance full of guts and class to win the 32Red Kauto Star Novices’ Chase earlier on the card.
The mare has been the apple of trainer Warren Greatrex’s eye for some time – and lined up contest with a perfect record over fences to date.
She was always going to be tested to the limit though, in what looked the deepest renewal of the three-mile showpiece for many a year.
Richard Johnson was happy to take a lead for two-thirds of the contest, as Red Indian and Bags Groove set the pace, until the latter disappointingly dropped away on the second circuit.
La Bague Au Roi jumped herself to the front a long way from home, gaining lengths at her fences and putting the others under pressure, including the favourite Santini, who was caught flat-footed turning in.
It was the Paul Nicholls-trained Topofthegame who loomed up as the big threat and he looked sure to win when Henry Cobden kicked him into a lead approaching the second-last, but he met the fence wrong.
That gave La Bague Au Roi (8/1) the advantage again and like a terrier she would not be denied, flying the last and keeping on for a length-and-a-half victory.
Greatrex said: “I think now, she is physically there. She is tall and is a big mare and it is probably only now she has her strength. She jumps, and that is the – she is so quick from one fence to another.
“Dicky (Johnson) said most of the way round he feels like he is in second gear, as she is just hacking along. I was looking behind and trying not to get too excited. I kept seeing them go one by one. I thought turning in second would do and I would take that, but she has gone and done it. It’s an amazing day.”
He went on: “She definitely stays the trip. It’s brilliant. We want to compete at the top level and we’ve done it again. We can pretty much aim her anywhere. We’ve always said we are not totally sure Cheltenham is her track.
“She is better on a flat track. We can go anywhere. We may look at the Leopardstown meeting in Ireland (in February). Why not, let’s go nick some of their euros! It’s the best Christmas ever.”
Nicholls said of the runner-up: “He looked like he came there and won it and he half-idled a fraction, as he was a bit novicey over the last two and then he stayed on strong. He is still a big baby. He jumped brilliantly and travelled strongly. I’m thrilled with him, as he is a smart horse. A stiffer track will suit him better.
“There are no excuses, he ran well. He had plenty of pace there. He will go to the Reynoldstown, then the RSA. We don’t want to over-run him this year.”
Nicky Henderson said of Santini: “I thought he ran a great race, he was just done for pace on the bend, but was staying on again.”
CATCH UP ON ALL THE CHRISTMAS RACING IN THE IRISH FIELD ON SATURDAY, DECEMBER 29th