Bells 'N' Banjos hits right note at Leicester to spark Cheltenham dreams

Wed 1 Feb 2017

Fergal O'Brien has his sights set on the four-mile National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham for Bells 'N' Banjos following his second successive course success at Leicester.

The seven-year-old won the 'battle of the banjos' as he outpointed Duelling Banjos by a length and a quarter in the H.A.C. Pipeline Supplies Novices' Limited Handicap Chase.

The pair set the pace throughout and it was Bells 'N' Banjos (15-2) who found extra on the run-in as the pair pulled 20 lengths clear of Some Are Lucky in third place.

"I'm delighted. He's won twice here now on different ground, but Paddy (Brennan) said he doesn't want extremes, so he want wide all the way in search of better ground," said O'Brien.

"He'll have a little break. I'll have a word with the owners, but I'd like to go to Cheltenham for the four-miler. He jumps well and he stays well. He's very straightforward."

Full Irish led from flag fall to comfortably take the EBF British Stallion Studs 'National Hunt' Novices' Hurdle.

Up with the pace appeared to be the best tactics on the heavy ground and Aidan Coleman controlled proceedings, as the six-year-old opened his account over jumps by five lengths to Head To The Stars.

Trainer Emma Lavelle intends to skip Cheltenham with the 9-2 winner and run the six-year-old in the EBF Novices' Handicap Hurdle Final at Sandown on March 11.

"I think he was probably less inconvenienced by the ground than the others. The plan was to make it if nothing else wanted to," she said.

"He won't go to Cheltenham this year. He'll head for the EBF Final at Sandown. His future is over fences."

Memories of 1997 Grand National hero Lord Gyllene were revived when his colours were carried to victory by Ballinvarrig (5-1) in the Running Hare Handicap Chase.

The 10-year-old, trained by Tom George, is the only horse left carrying the famous green, white and black silks following the deaths of Lord and Lady Clarke.

Ballinvarrig had not won for over two years but returned to form with an emphatic victory, by 14 lengths, over Mister Grez in the hands of Adrian Heskin.

"I think there was a little whisper in the Clarke family, is this horse ready for retirement? He obviously is not quite ready," said George.

"He's just lost his way a bit, but it was nice the handicapper gave him a chance and I hope he doesn't get too carried away. He's in the right grade and he enjoyed that.

"He's the last horse the late Lady Clarke had with me and that's why they kept these colours and Simon (Clarke, son) and his sisters came in. These colours mean a lot to them."

Champion jockey Richard Johnson took his tally to 146 with a double on Paddocks Lounge and Allee Bleue.

The latter, trained by Philip Hobbs, appeared to handle the heavy ground much better than any of his rivals as the 7-1 chance bolted up by 26 lengths in the Golden Miller Handicap Hurdle.

Owner Andrew Cohen is hoping the handicapper does not take the winning margin literally in assessing the value of the performance.

"He's run disappointingly the last twice, for inexplicable reasons," he said.

"We had medical issues with him earlier on in the season. We thought he'd got over them, worked really well at home and then ran deplorably badly.

"He was running off a much lower mark and for some reason he's come together. Horses are a mystery. I didn't have a shilling on him.

"All I was hoping was that he would finish his race after his last two races."

Johnson said: "It's very hard work out there. He's won on heavy ground before and anything that has won on heavy has a big advantage.

"He ran reasonably well last time but he hasn't suddenly improved. He's just handled the conditions."

Johnson had earlier enjoyed a facile success on Paddocks Lounge, with the 4-5 favourite making all to take the Burton Lazars Novices' Claiming Hurdle by 17 lengths for trainer Sophie Leech.

Aza Run (4-1 favourite) relished the testing conditions as he justified strong market support to win the ROA/Racing Post Owners Jackpot Handicap Hurdle, to give 10lb claimer Aiden Blakemore his second winner over hurdles.

Trainer Shaun Harris said: "The heavier ground the better for him. I was just worried it might get called off like it did at Fakenham last week."

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