Cheltenham Festival runner-up Libberty Hunter dips his toe into graded waters for the first time in the My Pension Expert Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree on Saturday.

The Evan Williams-trained gelding has enjoyed a successful campaign bar a fall on his seasonal return and chasing debut at Chepstow in the autumn, subsequently scoring at Wincanton and at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.

He returned to the Cotswolds to contest the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual last month and emerged with plenty of credit after finishing second to Unexpected Party in the hands of Harry Cobden.

With title-chasing Cobden in the plate once more, Libberty Hunter has his sights raised for a Grade One event which immediately follows the Randox Grand National.

“He ran well at Cheltenham and we thought we’d try him in a Grade One,” said Williams.

“He ran very, very well at the Festival. He hasn’t got many chances to run in a Grade One as a novice, so we thought we’d have a go at it.

“It would have been easier to have gone down the handicap route but I just thought as they only get so many chances as a novice, it would be nice to try it, even if we do fail.

“The horse has had a good season and he deserves a crack at it.”

Dan Skelton is represented by Etalon, who also steps up in class after winning each of his first three starts over fences in handicaps.

“I’m keen to give him his chance as he’s been a progressive horse in handicaps and I want to give him his opportunity in a Grade One,” said Skelton.

“I have a lot of respect for those seasoned novices in there who have been running in graded races all year long, but he comes into this unbeaten over fences and we’ll be doing our best to stay unbeaten!”

Gordon Elliott will run Found A Fifty, second to Gaelic Warrior in the Arkle at Cheltenham and a consistent presence this year, having not finished out of the top two in five runs.

“I thought he ran very well at Cheltenham, he just bumped into a very good horse. He’ll love the ground, the softer the better for him,” Elliott told At The Races.

“He has been in the mix in Grade Ones all season and it would be great to win another one with him.”

Other contenders include the Willie Mullins-trained Hercule Du Seuil, who has won his last five races but has not been seen on the track since October, Henry de Bromhead’s former Triumph Hurdle hero Quilixios and Sarah Humphrey’s stable star Nickle Back.

Bryony Frost showcased her ability to produce a winner on the big day as she triumphed in the Close Brothers Red Rum Chase at Aintree aboard Sans Bruit.

The 5-1 chance had been partnered by Frost in one of his three previous British starts and came into the race having yet to get off the mark in this country, with his light weight prompting trainer Paul Nicholls to give Frost the ride rather than stable jockey Harry Cobden.

The opportunity was grabbed with both hands and the horse was settled quickly into an even rhythm, jumping fluently all the way and gaining ground at every fence.

Turning for home he was at the head of affairs and just continued to pull away, jumping the last in isolation and crossing the line four lengths ahead of 9-2 favourite Saint Roi.

“Every race on the big stage is always going to hit where you want it to – the adrenalin, the focus and the positive nerves before,” Frost said after the win.

“The instructions were that if he was really keen to go out in front, then do what you do. The start was a bit of a muddle, but luckily he stayed really relaxed for it and I was able to get into a good position.

“I found a rhythm, we got in some really lovely breathers and when someone came to my girths, he picked up again and I thought ‘if you’ve got that much petrol, let’s start rolling’.”

By her own admission Frost has been frustrated by a lack of chances this season, a situation that has led her to consider the possibility of riding in France.

She added: “The opportunities come when they come, you’re thankful when they do and you try to make it happen.

“There is frustration, of course there is, you’ve got so much to offer, but you can only work with the opportunities that you’re getting and be thankful for the ones you get, whether they’re coming quickly or months apart.

“I’m buzzing we’ve got a big win. The crowd and the fans here are phenomenal, you feel the support and I feel it on the daily at the tracks when I’m riding.

“Parts of the season have been pushing more uphill, but you can’t sit down and cry about it, you’ve just got to get on and make the most of it when it comes.

“We’re not riding this Saturday and there is frustration, of course there is. You’re in the game to win and you want to ride and be out there. There’s nothing you can do about it, just keep working hard.”

On a possible French switch, she added: “You get a girls’ allowance out there, which is a huge advantage for me. It would be silly not to take advantage of that.

“You give me the ammunition, I’ll make it happen.”

Cheltenham Festival runner-up Its On The Line (3-1 favourite) went one better when landing the Randox Foxhunters’ Open Hunters’ Chase for Derek O’Connor.

The seven-year-old was kept out of trouble by O’Connor through the early stages before he delivered Emmet Mullins’ charge with a perfectly-timed challenge to score by four and a quarter lengths from the admirable Bennys King.

Mullins said: “He’s got ability and Derek is good and persistent on him and gets everything out of him. We were thankful for the loose horses today as it meant he had a bit of company and he was able to stretch out and go away, he’s done it well in the finish.

“He takes his races very well, last season he ran at Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown so he has a great constitution. I think he’ll stay hunter chasing as it’s great to be able to come to these meetings and have a horse with a big chance. Fingers crossed he keeps doing the business.”

O’Connor added: “They went a ferocious gallop and he was a little bit off the bridle, but one thing he does is jump and he was jumping well all the way.

“We got a little bit of stick after Cheltenham, he lacks that bit of class to travel in a race but he leaves it all on the line every day and puts it all in when it comes down to it.

“Emmet’s a genius and it’s a privilege to put on these (JP McManus) colours every day.”

The closing Goffs Nickel Coin Mares’ Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race went the way of Ben Pauling’s Diva Luna (13-2), who made all the running under Kielan Woods.

“That was a great ride, she was good wasn’t she? She’s a nice horse,” said Pauling.

“He kept it very simple, we knew at Market Rasen that she had gears so the plan was to dictate and kick as late as we could. I think he knew he had plenty left.

“She won’t run again this season and she’ll go hurdling next season, she’s got a lot of class.”

Harry Cobden feels he finally has a chance of getting involved at the business end of the Randox Grand National after confirmation he will keep the ride on the 2022 winner, Noble Yeats.

Since the retirement of Sam Waley-Cohen, son of owner Robert, Sean Bowen had been riding the Emmet Mullins-trained nine-year-old, and he was on board when he ran a brave race to finish fourth to Corach Rambler last year.

With Bowen on the sidelines through injury earlier this year, his championship rival Cobden picked up the ride in the Cleeve Hurdle, which they won, and he maintained the partnership in the Stayers’ Hurdle.

While unplaced there, connections have decided to stick with Cobden for Aintree.

“I’m really looking forward to riding Noble Yeats in the Grand National. He’s trained by a very shrewd man in Emmet Mullins who knows how to ready a horse for this race as he did so well a couple of years ago when Sam Waley-Cohen rode him to victory,” said Cobden in his blog for Planet Sport.

“I’m glad I’ve had a couple of goes on him now because it does take a bit of time to understand how best to ride him. I know plenty about him, but I’ll definitely watch his two National runs back before the big day.

“Connections are quite keen for the ground to dry up a bit as he’s probably slightly more effective on a sounder surface, so let’s hope there isn’t too much rain between now and the race.”

He went on: “To have a genuine chance in the National is fantastic. Every other ride I’ve had in it hasn’t really had much going for it, so to know he stays the trip and has plenty of experience over the fences is great and I’m very excited.

“I haven’t had much success in the National itself, but I won the Topham a couple of times aboard Ultragold, so I do know the sort of horse required to go well around there. Unfortunately I don’t often get to the second circuit in the big race itself, so let’s hope that changes this year!

“It’s the biggest and most well-known race of the season and it would be amazing to win it. To me it’s only second to the Gold Cup and of course I’d love to win it. I’m very lucky to have a horse this year that has a proper chance and I can’t wait to have a crack at winning it on him.”

Thunder Rock provided Sean Bowen with his biggest success since returning from injury in the Listed bet365 Premier Chase at Kelso.

Bowen – who has seen his lead at the top of the jockeys’ championship eroded and then passed by Harry Cobden – has struggled for winners since his return to action but victory on one of Olly Murphy’s stable stars will have done him the world of good.

Given a patient ride, Thunder Rock grew in confidence as the race progressed, as Minella Drama, Aye Right and Elvis Mail tried to stretch things.

Grand National fancy Monbeg Genius struggled to get on terms and when Thunder Rock went cruising on by as they turned into the straight, it was clear he had no more to give.

Thunder Rock found plenty in the home straight and the heavily-backed 9-4 favourite came home seven lengths clear of Minella Drama, booking himself a ticket to Aintree and a step back up in class.

Bowen said: “He proved he stays three miles. They went quick and every time I gave him a squeeze he picked up.

“I was confident where I was and Olly gave me a lot of confidence going out to ride him. I’d been riding a lot more seconds than winners since I came back and I was getting a bit frustrated. It always helps having a good boss like that.”

Murphy said: “I really enjoyed that. I went to Cheltenham in December when I felt like I’d set him up for a big handicap but he may as well have pulled up and it’s been an upward curve since then.

“He ran well the last day at Musselburgh on the wrong track when he was wheel-spinning for two and a half miles but it did his confidence good.

“I said to Sean not to get in a battle with him and ride him with confidence because he was the classiest horse in the race and to make that tell and he did just that.

“It’s been hard for Sean, he’s riding through pain and we’ve had a quiet couple of weeks ourselves so this will do him the world of good.”

He added: “I think we’ll go to Aintree with him for the Bowl now, it’s a Grade One so he’ll need to step up again but a small field suits him and he’ll be back over 150 in a handicap again.”

Sean Bowen is looking to make up for lost time when he makes his return from a lengthy absence at Huntingdon on Thursday.

Bowen held a significant advantage over Harry Cobden before he suffered a nasty fall from Gordon Elliott’s Farren Glory in the Grade One Formby Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree on Boxing Day.

A problem with a knee has kept him on the sidelines since, and Cobden has whittled away at his advantage to such an extent that before racing on Wednesday the gap had been reduced to just four.

Bowen returns on Olly Murphy’s Roccovango in the Mulberry Developments Novices’ Handicap Hurdle.

“It’s been a long six weeks out of the saddle, and I really can’t wait to get back riding on Thursday,” said Coral ambassador Bowen.

“I don’t tend to watch much racing when I’m out of action, but I do watch James (brother) and support him, and I’ll always check the results to see how Olly’s horses have got on. It is always tough seeing the horses you’d have been on go out there and win, because even though you’re happy they’ve won, you always want to be the jockey to win on them.

“Harry has been riding right at the top of his game recently, and Paul’s (Nicholls) horses are also in great form, so I really need to get back riding winners if I want to be champion jockey, which make no mistake, I do!

“I’d much rather still have a comfortable lead, but the fact Harry is now breathing down my neck at the top of the championship has given me that extra bit of fire in my belly to want to get back out there and ride as many winners as I possibly can.

“It’s very much going to be a numbers game for me for the rest of the season, so wherever I think I have the best chance of riding a few winners is where I’ll be heading, regardless of the high-profile action that might be taking place elsewhere.”

He added of Roccovango: “He’s not a horse we know much about as he’ll be having his first start for Olly on Thursday, but he’d look potentially well-handicapped on some of his form in Ireland, so he goes there with a chance.

“I’d say we’ll have to go some to beat Harry Derham’s horse Nordic Tiger though, as he looks particularly well-in at the weights.”

Blueking D’Oroux demonstrated his class with a taking victory in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot.

The four-year-old was sent off at 4-1 in a field of five, most of whom carried with them more experience and higher ratings than Paul Nicholls’ runner.

Harry Cobden bided his time, only asking the winner to throw down a challenge over the second-last and finding him comfortably able to go on and take the Grade Two by a length from Strong Leader.

Harry Cobden expects Rubaud to prove difficult to beat in Saturday’s West Country Weekend Elite Hurdle at Wincanton.

The Paul Nicholls-trained five-year-old had a progressive profile last season, which ended with him winning the Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr.

He showed there could be more to come this term when winning first time out in Listed company at Kempton last month, when connections expected him to need the run, and Cobden feels that bar Constitution Hill, Rubaud could take some stopping on his side of the Irish Sea.

“Rubaud is in good form after winning at Kempton the other day. The handicapper put him up 9lb for that, but you would want a good one to get by him here I would say,” said Cobden.

“He was impressive when he won the Scottish Champion Hurdle last season, but he was only running off a mark of 135 then. Now he is up to 150 and hopefully he can run up to that mark.

“I can’t think of too many horses in this country that would beat him in this division in Britain apart from Constitution Hill.

“He would struggle to lay a glove on Constitution Hill, but someone has got to win these races and we might as well keep him in this division and win as much as we can.”

Cobden went on: “He needed his first run as he hadn’t been away for a gallop. The runner-up at Kempton (Too Friendly) was race-fit and Rubaud was fresh.

“He can take a chance at his hurdles and the only thing I would say about his Kempton run was that he was bit low at the odd one, but he got away with it.

“That run will have taken the gas out of him and he is a horse that really wants it and he will stick his head out for you. He has got a nice way of galloping, and he has a nice low head carriage.”

Blueking D’Oroux may have booked his ticket for the Greatwood Hurdle back at Cheltenham next month following a straightforward success in the Masterson Holdings Hurdle.

Trained by Paul Nicholls, the four-year-old arrived from France with a fairly tall reputation but took a while to adapt to his new surroundings.

He ended last season in good form, though, by winning a decent handicap at Ascot at 50-1 and finishing second at Aintree’s Grand National meeting.

Harry Cobden always looked in control on this occasion and the 5-2 chance came up the hill on his own to win by two lengths.

Nicholls said: “I’m thrilled with that. On ratings, he was entitled to win and we had him ready for today. He has improved so much for last season’s wind operation, as he was a disaster at the start.

“He’s always been quite a nice horse, but he was struggling with his breathing and never showed anything at home.

“But after his summer out he’s worked beautifully. He’s improved from last year and is an improving horse. Some of ours are needing their runs and I’ve not been in such a hurry with them. It’s all about their futures.

“This horse is in the Greatwood and at Ascot and we’ll look at races like the Betfair Hurdle later in the season. He’ll go novice chasing next year. He’s got to take on older horses in handicaps.”

Coral cut the winner from 16-1 into 12s for the Greatwood Hurdle next month.

Nicky Henderson’s Hyland (9-1) was given a patient ride by Nico de Boinville to win the Pertemps Network Qualifier.

Top weight Flight Deck made a very bold bid from the front on his first outing for Deborah Cole but Hyland joined him at the last and went on to win by two lengths. Judicial passed Flight Deck up the hill to claim second.

David Sumpter, spokesman for the winning Ten From Seven syndicate said: “We’ve had lots of winners, that is number 99, but it’s the first one here at Cheltenham for myself and I’m overwhelmed.

“The ground was getting too soft for him but Nico decided to stick to the inner and he handled it superbly. Ten From Seven have been going for 20 years and originally was made up for people from Seven Barrows.”

Hyland was given a 25-1 quote for the Pertemps Final by Paddy Power.

The Olly Murphy-trained Butch (3-1) made almost all the running in the William Hill Epic Weekend Free Bet Novices’ Hurdle.

Sean Bowen set off to make it a proper gallop but Keith Donoghue had bided his time on Antrim Coast and seemed to have delivered him perfectly after the last to hit the front deep inside the final furlong.

To Butch’s credit, however, he battled back and got back up to win by a neck.

Bowen said: “He was the only runner that had run over three miles and so I wanted to make the best of it.

“The horse gave everything and really stuck his head out. It’s not often they come back like that after being headed.”

Winning owner Max McNeil said: “The horse has proved he’s an out and out stayer, that’s why we wanted to make it a test, and Sean read the script well.

“This is a very good prospect but I’m also very excited about Inthewaterside at Aintree tomorrow.”

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