Ucello Conti booked his ticket to the Cheltenham Festival, with a four-and-a-half length victory in the Arctic Tack Stud Hunter Chase at Thurles on Sunday afternoon.
The 11-year-old, who chased home Anibale Fly in last season’s Paddy Power Chase, had only recorded his first success on Irish Soil a week earlier on his point-to-point debut at Aghabullogue, however the odds-on favourite did not have things his own way.
Jumping well in the hands of first-time rider Barry O’Neill, the Simon Munir and Isaac Souede-owned French-bred began to make him move along the back straight, and ominously loomed alongside his main market rivals, Gwencily Berbas around the home bend.
Aine O’Connor sent the Barry Connell-owned pace-setter on once again on the run to the second-last and a quicker leap over that obstacle had got the favourite under pressure, as the field began to punch up with the Pat Doyle pair of Myrons and Samanntom also staying-on to get back into contention.
O’Neill got the favourite into top gear coming to the final fence, where he was upsides with Gwencily Berbas, when that rival made a costly error and parted company with Aine O’Connor, leaving Ucello Conti to return a comfortable winner.
The Pat Doyle duo fought out the place battle, with Samanntom and Susie Doyle just getting the better of their stable companion Myrons.
“He is a big favourite in the yard and I suppose he hadn’t won a race in four years but he has been placed in all those big handicaps, so it is nice to get his head in front and get the confidence back in to the horse,” said Gordon Elliott when speaking to Racing TV.
“He (Barry O’Neill) said that he probably should have given him a squeeze at the second-last as he got him in to pop it and kind of landed out on all fours and a bit flat-footed. Aine (O’Connor, rider of Gwencily Berbas) was gone then, but he said that he was only getting going, getting in to top gear.
“It was made a bit easier when Aine’s horse came down, but Barry was confident that he would have won.
“Cheltenham and Aintree for the Foxhunters is next, we are going to keep him to the hunter chases this year. He will have an entry (for Aintree Grand National, and I will obviously have to talk to Anthony, Simon and Isaac, and see what we would do, but it is nice for a horse like him to be able to go back hunter chasing and having a bit of fun.”