There was relief for bookmakers after El Fabiolo’s Champion Chase defeat saved them a a “multi-million pound” pasting from the punters on day two of the Cheltenham Festival.

After a Willie Mullins treble landed on day one of the meeting, the layers were staring down the barrel of a repeat after Ballyburn and Fact To File had both landed the spoils at short odds.

With the absence of Jonbon, El Fabiolo was sent off the 2-9 favourite to inflict more misery on the bookies in the Betway-sponsored feature, but they were given a reprieve as the market leader’s jumping fell apart – being subsequently pulled up, with fellow Irish raider Captain Guinness limiting the damage as he obliged at odds of 17-2.

“After his opening day treble, we knew the three Willie Mullins-trained hot favourites would feature in many, many accumulators on day two, and the writing looked on the wall when Ballyburn and Fact To File landed the first two legs,” said Coral’s David Stevens.

“On this occasion, however, it wasn’t to be, and to the great relief of the layers, an early blunder from the favourite saw punters’ hopes dashed.

“It wasn’t up there with the Annie Power fall, but we needed a result and we got it, and we go into day three with all to play for.”

Lawrence Lyons, spokesperson for BoyleSports, added: “Punters were jumping for joy when Willie’s first two favourites bolted up, but El Fabiolo threatened major damage so we’re saying cheers to Captain Guinness who definitely pulled a rabbit out of the hat for us.”  

Although not many punters benefitted from the victory of Captain Guinness, one winner was the ‘Rachael Blackmore – Serial Winners Fund’ with Betfair adding a further £10,000 to the charity initiative set up to raise funds for both the Injured Jockey Fund and the Irish Injured Jockeys.

“What an amazing win for Rachael and the injured jockeys’ charities in the UK and Ireland,” said Betfair’s Barry Orr.

“The pot now strands on £205,000 and hopefully there are more celebrations to come this week.”

One firm refusing to get carried away in the Captain Guinness celebrations was BetVictor, with representative Sam Boswell feeling the advantage very much lies with the punters with two days of action still to go.

He said: “After winning the first race with Ballyburn the pressure was on as punters rejoiced, Mullins then had Fact To File win the Brown Advisory Novice Chase at 8-13.

“The respite of a domestic winner in the Coral Cup was limited as Langer Dan (13-2) was a popular pick to score back to back wins.

“It came down to the Champion Chase where El Fabiolo looked set to put us to the sword. It was only a jumping error that prevented potentially significant payouts across the industry as Rachael Blackmore was able to take advantage on Captain Guinness.

“It was another big day for punters and at the halfway stage bookies are very much 2-0 down.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Paddy Power, with spokesperson Paul Binfield adding: “El Fabiolo’s unfortunate mistake was the crucial moment of the day for the bookies and was absolutely massive saving us a seven-figure payout.

“We were slightly up on the day, but after a resounding victory for punters on Tuesday, they’re still in front.”

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Nicky Henderson is unconcerned that Jonbon is heading for his big clash with El Fabiolo in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase on the back of a defeat.

For a horse who has won 12 of his 15 races under rules, the Seven Barrows handler also reads nothing into the fact that all three of his defeats have come at Cheltenham.

Stablemate Constitution Hill beat him in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle two years ago, while El Fabiolo saw him off in the Arkle last term. Most recently, in a performance littered with jumping errors, he was beaten in the rearranged Clarence House Chase as the 1-4 favourite.

He did begin this season with a comfortable win at Cheltenham, though, and that is why Henderson sees no reason to worry.

“He’s schooled this morning, AP (McCoy) was here to see him. He’s in good form, very good,” said Henderson.

“We’ve done nothing different (since the Clarence House). You just put it down as one mistake. You’ve got to. He schooled this morning and jumped more than he will in the Queen Mother.

“He won the Shloer, that proves he goes around Cheltenham, I’ve no worries on that front.”

With Alan King’s Edwardstone looking a reformed character having adopted front-running tactics in the Game Spirit Chase, Henderson feels the Queen Mother will be run to suit Jonbon.

He said: “They’ll go some gallop and I think that suits him. It looks as if Edwardstone has come into pace-making duties and he looked good at Newbury, but in some ways, I don’t think that is a bad thing for us. But I would have been happy to make the running.

“AP thought he was very good (Thursday morning) and would love to ride him himself – of all the horses, I know he’d love to ride him because he would suit him. AP has watched him school so many times.

“There’s one fence in our row of five he always meets on the wrong stride but he is so quick sorting his feet out. I think AP would love the challenge of him. While Constitution is straightforward, he is a bit the other way, he tests you, we call him fidgety.

“He did well really last time (to get back on terms), the thing that cost him was the last fence, not the mistake down the hill. If he’d met it on a better stride, it would have been game over, but he landed in a bit of a heap and the other horse just got away from him.”

A step up in trip had been discussed at the end of last season but he was not even entered in the Ryanair this year.

“We discussed it but never put him in the Ryanair. I would have no problem going over two and a half,” said Henderson.

“If you go back to last year, he was going to go over two and a half at Aintree and it was only because the two-mile novice chase was miles weaker that he ran in it, so we stayed at two and he winged round Aintree.

“A fortnight later, we took him to Sandown against his elders to find out and he winged round there, so we said he was a two-miler. I’d be surprised if one day he doesn’t go over further. We’ll find out between now and the end of the season, let’s see how it all goes.”

The rematch with El Fabiolo was all set for the original Clarence House at Ascot but when the race was moved to Cheltenham, Willie Mullins decided to keep his chaser at home.

“I was really looking forward to Ascot and the clash with El Fabiolo, we were in absolute tip-top shape and I was very confident for that, we were very prepared for it,” explained Henderson.

“He’s the one horse, when you’ve wound up the clock, a week was a long time for him, I couldn’t wind him up any more and it gave us a headache of a week.

“People might say what difference does a week make, but to something like him it does. With Constitution Hill, you could hold him for a month, but Jonbon is a bit different to anybody else.

“He might have had a harder race than we imagined from the betting, but until he made that mistake down the hill, everything had gone really nice.”

El Fabiolo continued his relentless march towards next month’s Queen Mother Champion Chase with a dominant display in the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase at Leopardstown.

Winner of the Irish Arkle at this meeting last year before following up in the Arkle at Cheltenham, the seven-year-old had stretched his unbeaten record over fences to six when making a successful start to the current campaign in the Hilly Way at Cork.

With the weather denying him an intended trip to Britain for the Clarence House Chase at Ascot last month, El Fabiolo was rerouted to the Dublin Racing Festival for his final outing before his return to the Cotswolds and ultimately got the job done without too much fuss.

Having tracked his stablemate and last year’s winner Gentleman De Mee for most of the two-mile-one-furlong journey, El Fabiolo (4-11 favourite) took over with a big leap two fences from home and was in in full command thereafter, only having to be pushed out by Paul Townend to score by eight and a half lengths from another Willie Mullins-trained runner in Dinoblue.

Both Coral and Paddy Power make El Fabiolo the 4-9 market leader to provide Mullins with a third successive victory in the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival following the back-to-back wins of the currently sidelined Energumene.

El Fabiolo remains on course for Ascot’s BetMGM Clarence House Chase on Saturday.

While most of southern England is currently white over due to a succession of freezing nights, with more to come, there is hope in the forecast that it may warm up in time for the weekend.

It would be a huge shame if the meeting does not go ahead, as Willie Mullins’ El Fabiolo is due to meet the Nicky Henderson-trained Jonbon, with the score between the two currently standing at one win each.

However, should the meeting be lost to the weather and rerouted to Cheltenham the following weekend, as it was last year, El Fabiolo appears unlikely to make the journey.

“We took him to the Curragh yesterday, Paul (Townend) rode him, he went very well so the plan at the moment is to head to Ascot at the weekend,” said assistant trainer Patrick Mullins on Sky Sports Racing.

“The plan is, as long as the race is going to go ahead, we’ll probably take the boat on Thursday afternoon. If it’s called off and he had to come home we’ll probably wait for the Dublin Racing Festival which is on our doorstep and worth great money as well.”

He went on: “To be honest I’d have thought the Dublin Racing Festival seemed the more obvious choice, but Willie, Simon (Munir) and Isaac (Souede, owners) seemed very keen to go to Ascot.

“Jonbon looks like a horse who is improving all the time and he’s a brother to Douvan, but I think we were very unlucky not to beat him in the novice hurdle (at Aintree), we got hampered at the third-last and made a mistake at the last and we beat him well at Cheltenham last year.

“You never know, the score is 1-1, hopefully we can make it 2-1 but there will be another rematch later if we don’t.

“It will be a spectacular race, great for the sport. Both teams are going in thinking they have a live chance.

“It’s a bit like in boxing when you get a trilogy. Hopefully they all get there and the race pans out as you hope, but we’re delighted with our fellow.

“He’s not a natural super-sharp two-miler (over a fence), he does have his own style. The day he won at the DRF with Daryl (Jacob) he put down at the fourth-last, but he seems to know where he is putting his feet. He generally keeps his hind end low which gives him a good centre of balance and, touch wood, while it is his own style, it does seem to be very effective.”

An update on conditions at Ascot released on social media read: “The track is currently frozen in places under the covers in the shaded areas of the racecourse.

“This is an improvement on yesterday morning but the forecast indicates a more severe forecast over the next two nights with temperatures due to drop as low as minus 5C.

“The forecast beyond that remains conflicting with the possibility of milder conditions arriving. We will continue to monitor and update as we get closer to raceday.”

Connections of Jonbon are excited about the prospect of again locking horns with El Fabiolo, with the Clarence House Chase now just over a week away.

The Ascot Grade One was nominated as the next target by both camps after winning their pre-Christmas assignments and neither team is backing down from the challenge just yet, with the two major players of the two-mile chasing division poised to clash for a third time.

It was Nicky Henderson’s charge who gained the upper hand at Aintree in the duo’s novice hurdling days, but El Fabiolo excelled during a novice chasing campaign that saw Willie Mullins’ seven-year-old claim Grade One glory at the Dublin, Cheltenham and Punchestown Festivals.

With the scoreline locked at one each, many thought the rubber match would come in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, but now the scene seems set for a repeat of Energumene’s titanic clash with Shishkin in early 2022, with the Jonbon camp relishing a blockbuster showdown.

“The horse is in great form, Nicky is very happy with him and we’re all looking forward to the race,” said Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus.

“It should be a cracking race and we’re looking forward to it.”

All has gone swimmingly for Jonbon so far this term and having returned with a dazzling display in Cheltenham’s Shloer Chase, he showed he has the ability to grind out results when conditions are against him when producing a gritty performance to win the Tingle Creek last month.

Jonbon was ridden in both of those victories by Nico de Boinville, but with the Seven Barrows number one on the sidelines with a collarbone injury and former partner Aidan Coleman still recovering from the serious knee injury suffered last summer, the eight-year-old is likely to have a new man in the saddle for the Clarence House.

James Bowen has proved a more than able deputy aboard the Henderson string in De Boinville’s absence, but Berry says no jockey decision has been made yet for Jonbon with the trainer set to have crucial input.

He added: “I’m not sure at the moment (who will ride) and we’ll leave that up to Nicky.”

El Fabiolo kicked off the new campaign as he finished the last with a predictably dominant display in the Bar One Racing Hilly Way Chase at Cork.

The Willie Mullins-trained six-year-old was flawless as a novice over fences last season, winning each of his four starts, including a brilliant triumph over Jonbon in the Arkle at Cheltenham.

With Jonbon having advertised his Queen Mother Champion Chase claims with victory in the Tingle Creek at Sandown on Saturday, it was over to El Fabiolo 24 hours later and he did not disappoint.

Mullins had saddled nine of the last 10 winners of the Hilly Way, with Un De Sceaux, Chacun Pour Soi and the currently sidelined dual Champion Chase hero Energumene among those on the roll of honour.

El Fabiolo was a 1-5 shot to add his name to the list and after travelling well on the heels of the pacesetters for much of the extended two-mile contest, Paul Townend allowed him to take over before four fences from the finish and he quickly took control.

Fil Dor did his best to keep tabs on the leader in the home straight, but despite a peck on landing after jumping the final obstacle, El Fabiolo never looked like coming to grief and was driven out on the run-in to prevail by four and three-quarter lengths.

Betfair and Paddy Power left the winner unchanged at 10-11 for the Champion Chase at Cheltenham in March, with old rival Jonbon rated his biggest threat at 5-2.

Mullins said: “I was a little worried as I had five other runners today and none of them shone so I was thinking this could be one of those days, but he got the job done.

“He was workmanlike and was very free with Paul over the first three fences. He didn’t get too high (in jumping) and Paul was trying to not let his head go and didn’t want him running too free.

“He relaxed at the second fence down the back straight and was able to do things properly. If he needed a race, Jack Kennedy (on runner-up Fil Dor) was there to test him and he did.”

There is a possibility of a pre-Festival clash between El Fabiolo and Jonbon, with Mullins suggesting a trip across the Irish Sea could be next on the agenda for his charge.

He added: “Jonbon did his job nicely, we got the job done today and we all have to get to Cheltenham.

“I don’t where we’ll go now – we’ll look at Christmas as well, but he will probably go to Ascot for the Clarence House (in January).”

The champion trainer also provided an update on Energumene’s well-being, saying: “He is in great shape considering and while he is out for the season, hopefully will be out at some stage.”

El Fabiolo kicked off the new campaign as he finished the last with a predictably dominant display in the Bar One Racing Hilly Way Chase at Cork.

The Willie Mullins-trained six-year-old was flawless as a novice over fences last season, winning each of his four starts, including a brilliant triumph over Jonbon in the Arkle at Cheltenham.

With Jonbon having advertised his Queen Mother Champion Chase claims with victory in the Tingle Creek at Sandown on Saturday, it was over to El Fabiolo 24 hours later and he did not disappoint.

Mullins had saddled nine of the last 10 winners of the Hilly Way, with Un De Sceaux, Chacun Pour Soi and the currently sidelined dual Champion Chase hero Energumene among those on the roll of honour.

El Fabiolo was a 1-5 shot to add his name to the list and after travelling well on the heels of the pacesetters for much of the extended two-mile contest, Paul Townend allowed him to take over before four fences from the finish and he quickly took control.

Fil Dor did his best to keep tabs on the leader in the home straight, but despite a peck on landing after jumping the final obstacle, El Fabiolo never looked like coming to grief and was driven out on the run-in to prevail by four and three-quarter lengths.

Paddy Power left the winner unchanged at 10-11 for the Champion Chase at Cheltenham in March, with old rival Jonbon rated his biggest threat at 5-2.

El Fabiolo begins on a well-trodden path to the Queen Mother Champion Chase when kicking off his season in the Bar One Racing Hilly Way Chase at Cork on Sunday.

His trainer Willie Mullins has won the race a record 14 times, with Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Chacun Pour Soi and Energumene amongst the Closutton alumni to claim this prize en route to the Cheltenham Festival.

Energumene used this as his starting point in both of his Champion Chase-winning seasons, but with his injury setback putting respective hat-trick bids on hold, the door has been opened for El Fabiolo to fill the void.

Unbeaten as a chaser, the six-year-old registered a brilliant Grade One treble last season, winning at the Dublin, Cheltenham and Punchestown Festivals in supreme fashion – and he is already dominating the ante-post betting for the Champion Chase in March.

“He was unbeaten over fences last season and this looks a nice starting point for the new campaign,” said Anthony Bromley, racing manager to El Fabiolo’s owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede.

“It’s been Willie’s plan from quite a long way out really, to go for this race, and we’re excited to see him back out.

“It’s really good prize-money for a Grade Two. He has got the entry in the Grade One at Christmas and we’ll get the Hilly Way out of the way first, but it could be coming a bit close.

“We’ll just see how he comes out of the race, but it’s all systems go for Sunday. It’s a tried and tested route for Willie – he tries to run his best two-miler in it, and hopefully El Fabiolo might be that now with Energumene on the sidelines.”

El Fabiolo’s opposition includes a former Closutton stablemate in Jungle Boogie, who is one of two in the race for new handler Henry de Bromhead, alongside convincing Grand Annual victor Maskada.

Barberstown Castle Chase runner-up Fil Dor represents the flying Gordon Elliott team, with Gavin Cromwell’s Grand National runner-up Vanillier and Patrick Foley’s Rebel Gold also taking part.

“We were delighted with Fil Dor at Naas and he’s in good form ahead of Sunday,” said Elliott.

“Naas was his first run of the season and his first run back over fences, so there was a lot of positives but obviously we are taking on a very good horse in El Fabiolo.

“Our lad is in good form, has a run under his belt and there is no point in shying away from one horse. Hopefully he’ll run well.”

Elsewhere on the card, there could be success for Mullins when Grade One-winning hurdler Zenta makes her chasing bow in the Grade Two O’Flynn Group Irish EBF Mares Novice Chase.

The four-year-old hardly put a foot wrong last term, winning at Fairyhouse on her stable debut before finishing third to Lossiemouth in the Triumph Hurdle and then achieving her own big-race victory at Aintree.

“It’s a nice race to start off with and Willie is happy with her, so let’s hope she jumps a good round and goes well,” said owner JP McManus’ racing manager Frank Berry.

“She’s been very consistent and it was great to get the Grade One with her in the spring. We’re hoping for a good round and for her to run well.”

Zenta faces stern opposition from within her own stable, with Paul Townend partnering wide-margin Killarney winner Hauturiere and the Kenny Alexander-owned Heia also engaged.

Harmonya Maker made a blistering start to her chasing career at Gowran Park and represents Elliott, with Con O’Keeffe’s Silent Approach completing the line-up.

“We couldn’t have asked for more from Harmonya Maker at Gowran and she’s in good form,” Elliott said. “This was the next obvious race for her and we’ll see where we go from here for the rest of the season with her.”

In the Grade Three Singletons Supervalu Stayers Novice Hurdle, big-money buy Mahon’s Way will look to build on an impressive debut over timber at Naas for De Bromhead.

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