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By Tom Peacock, PA Sport. Last Updated: 11/03/09 7:00pm
Master Minded storms clear to win again.
Master Minded successfully defended his Seasons Holidays Champion Chase crown at Cheltenham to become the first horse since Viking Flagship in 1995 to retain the two-mile championship.
The 'wow factor' of his devastating 19-length romp 12 months ago may have been missing, but the highest-rated horse in training still treated the National Hunt diehards to a masterclass in jumping.
After becoming the first five-year-old to win the race last year, the Tingle Creek and Victor Chandler hero was virtually unopposable as the 4-11 favourite.
Ruby Walsh always had Paul Nicholls' representative handily placed and moved the slick jumper into contention at the top of the hill on the far side of the track.
The Clive Smith-owned odds-on favourite then brushed aside Petit Robin at the second-last, moving through the gears with Rolls Royce-like precision to open up a seven-length advantage at the line.
Well Chief, having his first start for 698 days and belonging to the former Holy Trinity of two-mile chasers which included Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop, moved up with menace three-out but a slight mistake over the obstacle saw him lose vital ground.
As his legions of fans have come to expect, though, the 10-year-old gathered himself up and came with a renewed effort to claim a heart-warming second, with Petit Robin finishing third.
Master Minded now joins an elite club of horses to have won the Champion Chase more than once. Members include the likes of Barnbrook Again, Badsworth Boy and Fortria.
More importantly, he provided champion trainer Paul Nicholls with his first winner of the 2009 Festival.
Nicholls said: "He made it look very easy and hopefully we can bring him back next year to win it again.
"He jumps great and does everything really well, but what a wonderful run by Well Chief.
"There was a lot of pressure and he was a short-priced favourite so we just wanted to try and get him here in top form.
"He is only six so we want to look after him so we can come back next year.
"At the end of the day I am not interested in winning races by 20 lengths as I want to look after him.
"We are learning about him all the time and I want to leave plenty in the tank for future years.
"He is so uncomplicated that you can ride him how you want.
"He used to be a bit of a tearaway, which is why he had his falls, but he is much more relaxed these days and you just wouldn't know what was in the tank.
"Ruby said he is a different class to ride and that when he turned into the straight and gave him a slap that he tore up the hill.
"I will need to talk to Clive, but I am not keen on going to Aintree again over two and a half miles.
"There are races at Sandown and Punchestown but I fear the ground will be too quick by then so we may wait until next year."
Walsh added: "He's the best chaser around, as I'd say he wasn't as good today as he can be.
"He got worked up in the parade and the false starts were messy.
"What makes him so good is that good horses always win on an off-day."
For his owner it was another marvellous afternoon in the spotlight - and further glory is possibly around the corner with his Kauto Star out to justify favouritism in Friday's totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Smith said: "It would be wonderful if he could come back and win this race again.
"He is a lovely horse and it is a lovely race to win.
"I first came to Cheltenham in 1974 when Captain Christy won the Gold Cup.
"My friends and I were leaning over the railings and I didn't think I would ever have a runner here, never mind win a race."
Well Chief received a winner's cheer when returning to the enclosure, and his owner David Johnson said: "It's been a tremendous training achievement because the horse has legs like glass, and he's run into a superstar today."
Trainer David Pipe added: "He'll probably be remembered as the horse never to have won the Champion Chase, but this effort shows you what a great era it was when he was competing against Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop.
"I must hand a lot of the credit to Jon Lower who rides him most of the time at home."
Nicky Henderson was not too despondent with Petit Robin's efforts, and said: "We didn't hide, we took Master Minded on and had a go - he ran a great race.
"I think we'll have to go to two and a half miles now and try to avoid Master Minded."