Minella Forfitness and Barry Geraghty on the way to victory at DoncasterPICTURE: Martin Lynch (racingpost.com/photos)
Fitness the difference as Minella beats Cheltenian
Report: Doncaster, Wednesday
SIG Insulation EBF "National Hunt" Novices' Hurdle (Qualifier) 2m½f, 4-7yo
FITNESS proved the difference in the end as the 2011 Champion Bumper winner Cheltenian was denied a superb winning comeback after over 700 days off by Minella Forfitness.
Several of the runners were of interest in this novice contest with New Year's Eve, Snake Eyes and Valdez also holding high-class form or tall reputations alongside the eventual one-two.
Racing for the first time since his Cheltenham Festival victory, Cheltenian was keen for jockey Richard Johnson, who had him tucked in behind Minella Forfitness and Snake Eyes.
The seven-year-old jumped soundly on his first start over hurdles and as Snake Eyes led the field for home the big five drew clear of their rivals.
New Year's Eve was the first to crack and dropped away and he was soon followed by Snake Eyes, possibly paying for his exuberance in the early stages of the race.
At this point Cheltenian took over in the lead and jumped the third-last hurdle well as Minella Forfitness came under strong pressure.
The next hurdle was smashed out of the ground by Cheltenian as was the final flight but he still held a considerable advantage over Valdez with Minella Fotfitness plugging on up the rail.
Barry Geraghty: patient on winnerPICTURE: Martin Lynch
But Minella Forfitness, a winner over 2m 4f on his last start, would not go away and clawed back Cheltenian in the final strides to claim victory in a photograph.
Victory would have come as welcome news for trainer Nicky Henderson and owner Michael Buckley after the sudden death of the pair's Oscar Nominee, winner of this race 12 months ago, at Taunton on Tuesday
Geraghty said: "He just raced a little bit keen and with the choke out. I didn't have much horse between the third last and the last so I waited and waited and he picked up well.
"He probably wants a little bit further but he needs to learn to settle. He's a horse for next year."
Cheltenian was made a 16-1 chance for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle by Paddy Power and the same price for the Neptune Novices' Hurdle by bet365.
Sarah Hobbs, wife of trainer Philip Hobbs, said: "We're delighted with him. He jumped very well and was just a bit green at the end; he didn't know what to do by himself.
"He would have needed the run but hopefully it's on to Cheltenham now for the Supreme as long as his legs are okay in the morning - that's the main thing."