Cheltenham’s cross country races are rapidly acquiring a reputation as a proving ground for the Grand National, and Friday’s seventh stage of the Crystal Cup delivered on all counts. Whilst entries for the Aintree spectacular are still some way off, at least half the field is working its way toward a suitable handicap mark to be included in the 36 runner maximum field.

But this was a gripping race in its own right, fielding a former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner and winners of graded races alongside regulars already proficient over the unique set of obstacles presented in any cross country. Experience counts over the wide variety of obstacles and so it proved, as former Point-to-Pointer and hunter chaser Latenightpass continued his rise up the rankings to take advantage of a competitive handicap mark to win by four lengths.

It would be an exaggeration to describe Latenightpass’s rise to prominence as a rags to riches story; this winner of nine Point-to-Points has already scaled the heights in winning over Aintree’s National fences in the 2022 Foxhunter. Ably educated by champion Point-to-Point trainer Tom Ellis and wife and rider, Gina Andrews, he ran here in Dan Skelton’s name, but by his own confession, only to comply with qualification criteria. Receiving 20lbs (9kg) from top weight Minella Indo was more than enough to assert his authority.

The good news for Crystal Cup fans is that owner Pippa Ellis is not too sweet on a tilt at the National, although family pressure may come to bear.

Didero Vallis, Wick Green, Volcano and Vital Island were prominent for much of the race, each well versed in the course’s quirks following runs here in an identical race a month previously. Vital Island, winner over Punchestown’s banks in April, reappeared at Craon in September, but connections’ sporting efforts were not rewarded that time when the horse ripped a hind shoe in two in running. None of the four is likely to reappear at Cheltenham for the 9th leg in March, being poorly treated against higher-rated horses in a conditions event.

Galvin, winner of the National Hunt Chase at the Festival and second in the 2023 Festival cross country made headway in the latter stages, as did the eye-catching Minella Indo, debuting on this course, scene of his greatest triumph in the 2021 Gold Cup. As prep races for the Festival go, this was about as good as it gets and jockey Rachael Blackmore and trainer Henry de Bromhead were well satisfied.

But take nothing from the winner. A home-grown winner brought up in the amateur ranks and progressing to the big time is precisely the sort of story the sport needs, and demonstrates the grass roots appeal of the cross country genre. And if Aintree seems less than appealing, we may yet see Latenightpass at Lion d’Angers in the Spring.

Not so lucky were connections of Gesskille, who incurred a fatal injury at the 16th of the 30 obstacles.