Celestial Halo has broken new ground for champion trainer Paul Nicholls and he’s not stopping there.
The seven-year-old former Triumph Hurdle hero won the Grade 2 National Spirit Hurdle at a wet and muddy Fontwell on Sunday.
It was his handler’s first-ever success in the track’s richest race – one of few crowns that had eluded the prolific Ditcheat chief.
The 6/4 second-favourite beat off the challenge of reigning champion Tren-chant, who was second, with favourite Karabak unable to land a blow after a bad mistake at the fifth hurdle.
Celestial Halo will now skip the Cheltenham Festival, provided Big Buck’s is fit to defend his World Hurdle crown, and tackle the Aintree Hurdle at the Liverpool venue’s Grand National meeting.
Then, when most of his stable-mates depart for their summer break, the son of Galileo will change tack and return to the flat where he burst onto the scene as a two-year-old colt in 2006.
His proud owner Andy Stewart is eyeing the Queen Alexandra Stakes at Royal Ascot and, if successful, he will become Nicholls’ first-ever flat winner.
Stewart said: ‘His next aim will be the Aintree Hurdle and in the summer we hope he can hit the headlines by being Paul Nicholls’ first winner on the flat in the Queen Alexandra Stakes.
‘He has been taken out of the Champion Hurdle but he is still in the World Hurdle as a precaution in case Big Buck’s is not able to run.
‘Since returning to hurdling he seems to have regained his old enthusiasm.
‘Don’t forget he’s a former winner of the Triumph Hurdle and a former runner-up in the Champion Hurdle.’
The ground was extremely testing at Fontwell and it prompted Stewart and Nicholls to withdraw their other runner at the meeting – outside Grand National hope Ornais – from the Fuller’s London Pride Foxhunters Trial.
Herons Well – the 5/6 favourite – took full advantage of his absence and won in fighting style.
Elsewhere on Sunday’s card, which attracted a crowd of close to 3,500, Bunglasha Lady battled to victory in the totesport.com Supporting The Racehorse Sanctuary Novices’ Hurdle at 3/1.
Fruity O’Rooney made virtually every yard to win the Play Poker At tspoker.com Novices’ Chase at 5/4.
Colin Tizzard combined with his jockey son Joe in the 200% Deposit Bonus At tspoker.com Handicap Chase when Rateable Value – the 2/1 favourite – hauled in front-running Massini Sunset.
The Wildwood Golf Club Supports The Racehorse Sanctuary Handicap Hurdle went to 25/1-shot Quincy Des Pictons.
And Richard Johnson triumphed on his only ride on the card as he steered 5/2 Destroyer Deployed to victory in the bumper.