Melodic Rendezvous outpointed Puffin Billy in emphatic fashion as they built up for the Cheltenham Festival in the Bathwick Tyres Plymouth Novices' Hurdle at Exeter.
The two smart youngsters cleared away from their three opponents soon after halfway in the heavy ground and it was Puffin Billy, sent off the 4-5 favourite, who was first to look uncomfortable as Leighton Aspell began to get lower in the saddle.
Nick Scholfield, tracking him on Melodic Rendezvous (5-4), sat motionless aboard the Tolworth Hurdle winner until hitting the front after the final flight, after which Jeremy Scott's stable star surged nine lengths clear. Puffin Billy was later reported to be lame.
Scholfield said: "It's very deep ground. Puffin Billy is only five, we're seven and maybe a bit stronger and we've probably handled the ground better.
"We had a plan that we might just beat Puffin Billy for speed, we thought he was more of a stayer than ours. We were looking at the two-mile (Supreme) for Cheltenham, but on this showing, we've outstayed him and we are scratching our heads a bit.
"We were leaning towards the Supreme, but we'll have to wait and see what the ground is nearer the time. If it's good ground, we could look at the Neptune, but if it's soft he might go for the Supreme," he told Racing UK.
Some time afterwards, Puffin Billy was reported lame, trainer Oliver Sherwood's wife Tarnya tweeting: "Leighton was unhappy with Puffin Billy during the race today and he has been pronounced lame by vets."
Kim Bailey's highly-regarded Harry Topper took another step forward in the Bathwick Tyres Taunton Graduation Chase. Compared favourably by the trainer to his Gold Cup star Master Oats, the 5-4 favourite is now unbeaten in three starts over fences.
Jason Maguire spent much of the time at the rear of the small field, but asked Harry Topper to get closer to the action in the final half-mile, and after a little persuasion, the gelding seemed to be lobbing along again at the second-last. He was driven away in the closing stages to beat Hawkes Point be 12 lengths.
Bailey said: "It was a good performance. It's horrible ground. He's a baby, a frame of a horse, but he has a huge engine." Asked if the National Hunt Chase was the plan, he added: "Not necessarily. Cheltenham must be better ground than it has been, and I don't really want to put a gun to his head."
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