Champ made a remarkable return to the smaller obstacles to win the Grade One Howden Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot.
The nine-year-old, trained by Nicky Henderson, was last seen being pulled up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but showed he retained all his ability when outpointing Thyme Hill and Paisley Park in the extended three-mile showpiece.
The 4-1 chance was pulling double before the home turn with two flights left to jump and had to find extra in the closing stages as Thyme Hill put in a serious challenge.
But Jonjo O’Neill Jnr, recording a landmark first Grade One victory of his career, kept the JP McManus-owned gelding up to his work to prevail by a length and three-quarters.
Thyme Hill was runner-up for the second year running, although he reversed placings from 2020 with Paisley Park, who was three and a half lengths away in third on this occasion. Thomas Darby was fourth.
It was a bittersweet success for Henderson as he had to withdraw ante-post favourite Buzz on the eve of the race as the horse suffered a serious injury.
Champ was cut to 5-1 from 10-1 for the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival with Betfair.
Henderson said: “We have got to decide which way we will go. He can go either way [fences or hurdles].
“He is still a Gold Cup horse, but he is still capable of winning a Stayers’ Hurdle. So there is a big decision that we don’t have to make today.
“It is great for JP, it’s great for everyone. There is a lot to look forward to and we have to take these horses on and take them to where they belong.
“It is lovely to see him back and getting horses back when they have problems is our job and when that comes to fruition, from the team’s point of view it is a terrific effort. Our team at home, to get him back, it was lovely to watch the horse enjoy himself like that. We can go either way with him now.
“He has to go left-handed over fences, [but] as you can see over hurdles he can go left or right.”
Of opting to return in the Long Walk, he added: “There was nowhere to go, it seemed the obvious thing to do to give him a run over hurdles for his own good, for his own confidence.”
A jubilant O’Neill said: “It’s my first Grade One, I’ll remember this!
“As a young boy it’s what you want to do, ride a Grade One winner at Ascot. To do it for Nicky, JP and on a horse like Champ, it doesn’t get much better. The adrenaline is through the roof.
“Nicky said not to disappoint him, I was in front too but he’s won an RSA and has plenty of stamina. When Tom [O’Brien, on Thyme Hill] came to me he went again.
“He’s a great horse. He only really had one run last year and Nicky has done a tremendous job with him.
“I’ve had three bad injuries this year and it’s been slow to get going, but it only takes one horse to get you back. I’m very thankful to Nicky and JP for putting me on him.”
Henderson was able to give a cautiously upbeat bulletin on Buzz. After Newmarket, the Thurloe Thoroughbreds-owned grey shot towards the head of the market on the Stayers’ Hurdle with victory in the Coral Hurdle, but suffered a suspected fractured pelvis.
Speaking at Ascot, the Seven Barrows trainer said: “Buzz is good. We all thought he was bright and happy and as good as he can be. It is extraordinary. If you go into his box on a normal day, he looks as grumpy as he can possibly be and pretends he is going to bite you, but he wouldn’t, and he’d make faces at you. Yet you went into see him.
“He’s tied up and he was like he wanted a cuddle. He pricked his ears and wanted a carrot and he was ‘help me, dad’. He knows he is not the same person.
“I would say the signs are good, the first 48 hours are always crucial, because if they do have an internal haemorrhage or bleed. But we have got through the first 24 hours.
“You have the issue of complications, like colic, because he is stood still. But you have still got to eat. He is on the weirdest diet that neither he or I would want to ever eat, except it has got plenty of carrot in it. He is going to be bored and he has got a long time. But we will look after him and he will get the best treatment.
“We will do everything to get him back, not just back, but back on the track. There is every chance he will come back and that is our ambition.
“It is a 12-month job, I would have said. If someone said you could have him back for Christmas next year, you’d settle for that.
“I remember it happened to Fondmort. His was much more critical at this stage and that was a monumental life-saving situation and he was never ever going to run again.
“We don’t know to what degree he is injured. We don’t want to be too invasive yet, it is much better for him to rest and stand still.”