By Andy Stephens
Ben Pauling was in bullish mood at Huntingdon on Sunday despite Willoughby Court making hard work of winning on his chasing bow.
It was anything but straightforward for Cheltenham Festival winner against four inferior rivals in the 2m4f contest as he jumped left and made several errors - the first of which came as early as the third, a ditch, when he left his back legs in the obstacle and caused Nico De Boinville to wobble precariously.
Sent off at 2-5, the combination traded at more than 14-1 in-running on Betfair but good horses have the ability to overcome adversity and the Neptune Hurdle winner did just that - knuckling down gamely in the straight to battle back and master Casablanca Mix by a length and a quarter with The Unit another half a length back in third.
"There will be plenty of people queuing up to take him on now," Pauling predicted. "I invite them to come and have a go. These good horses are there to be taken on. It is never going to be an easy season for him but he has started and won. I'm thrilled.”
The five-minute contest would have made uncomfortable viewing for Pauling at times but he said: "In the circumstances for him still to win, that shows his class. It was more the ditch that half-scared him. Nico did well to nurse him back in and get him going as nicely as he did. The chips were down turning for home and he found what he needed.
"There are a lot of positives to be taken. I think there is a huge amount improvement to come and, in all honesty, that is a good thing.
"He has got round and he hasn't fallen. We will go home and we have got plenty to work with but it is good to see the engine is still there.”
Willoughby Court did show the verve which enabled him to fend off the ill-fated Neon Wolf at Cheltenham in March and, when he did keep straight and get the calculations right, there was athleticism to admire.
His next outing, going in the opposite direction on a more galloping track, will reveal more.
"We will definitely go left-handed next time out and we won't be rushing back right-handed,” Pauling said. "The two-and-a-half-mile Grade Two at the Hennessy meeting [Ladbrokes Winter Trophy] would be our next port of call.”
It has been a mixed 24 hours for De Boinville, who had pulled up before halfway on Coneygree in the Charlie Hall Chase the previous day.
"It took a while to get there, and it didn't look pretty early doors, but he has done it,” he said. “He has warmed up to it in the end. "There is so much more to come from him. He has gone down to those first few fences as if he has never a seen a fence in his life before. He has got bags of potential and ability. He will get there."
Earlier on the card. Pauling and De Boinville had teamed up to landed the extended 2m3f novices' hurdle with the imposing Equus Secretus. The five-year-old, sent off at 5-2, looks every inch a chaser and impressed with the way he galloped his rivals into submission.