Paul Nicholls is rarely “thrilled” by finishing fourth in any race, never mind a valuable Grade Two hurdle contest.

Yet the 12-times champion trainer was happy to make an exception about Monmiral, who returned to action on Sunday for the first time since sustaining an injury in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle on his seasonal bow at Newcastle in November.

It has taken the Ditcheat handler time to bring the five-year-old back to fitness after he sustained a nasty cut, but the exciting Monmiral, who took the Grade One Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle at Aintree last year, looked in great shape on his return at Fontwell.

Having travelled smoothly and jumped fluidly in a deep renewal of the National Spirit Hurdle, a race won by the Gary Moore-trained Botox Has, 9-4 favourite Monmiral floundered from the second last and was beaten 11 lengths.

Nicholls was delighted with his effort, however.

He said: “Basically, I have been up against it getting him ready. He had a piece of work last Sunday at Wincanton and yesterday was soon enough to run him. He cut himself and pulled up lame at Newcastle and had a month at the vets.

“Harry Cobden said that Sunday was the best feeling he has probably ever given him. He travelled well and jumped running, but just lacked a little bit from the second last.

“We rode him, as we always do, to try to win. Probably, if we had dropped him and given him a quieter run round, we might have run on.”

Nicholls is now targeting the two-and-a-half-mile Aintree Hurdle on April 7, should the gelding, who is owned in partnership by Sir Alex Ferguson, Ged Mason and John Hales, come out of his latest test satisfactorily.

“The thing is, there will be a lot of improvement to come from him,” said Nicholls.

“I have got six weeks now to get him really bang-on for Aintree, which is the plan.

“In effect, this was his first run of the season and I could not believe he was favourite because I told all and sundry that he was going to need the run.

“He had a real old blow. You can’t get horses really ready to win races like that in six weeks. We have just been pushing and pushing to try.

“He travelled on the bridle and just needed the run, simple as that.

“What a chaser he will be next season!

“In a lot of ways, by not having to run in Christmas Hurdles and things like that, he has had a bit of time and we will go to Aintree now really rafting.

“He will then have a holiday. We were really thrilled with him – he is a proper horse.”