GARY Bowyer had joked that Cheltenham had cost him enough money over the years – and he failed to pick a winner again last night.

Just a quick gallop from the famous festival course, the Bantams failed to stay the pace to fall at the third hurdle after back-to-back wins.

The short-priced favourites in pre-season continue to find League Two heavy going after a third defeat.

City had scored first and fought back to level but Cheltenham had the whip hand in a contest dominated by crosses and set-pieces.

Edin Rahic had treated the away fans to free pies the last time City were in this part of Gloucestershire.

The Bantams landscape looked very different for that low-key Checkatrade Trophy tie in January 2017 with a team eyeing a crack at the Championship under a chairman still romancing the public.

Over two-and-a-half years on, and Rahic suitably custard-pied long since, the rebuilding work from the damage that he left continues in earnest as Bowyer tries to forge a side capable of standing up to the uncompromising rigours of the fourth tier.

Cheltenham, whose third straight victory lifted them up to third, showed that it remains a work in motion.

Bowyer had made two changes from the weekend’s narrow success at Walsall. Anthony O’Connor replaced namesake Paudie at the back as the young Irishman was given a breather on the bench.

The other switch came in central midfield where Danny Devine made way for Jermaine Anderson, who started for the first time since the draw at Grimsby.

Callum Cooke’s wait for an opening start goes on as Bowyer continued to hold him back until he feels the Peterborough man has done his full “pre-season”.

Richard O’Donnell’s early form has won plaudits on and off the field and the keeper quickly carried on from where he had left off at Walsall.

Anderson’s half-clearance fell to Ryan Broom 20 yards out but O’Donnell was equal to his low shot and pushed it away with his left arm.

Cheltenham made a fast-paced start, knocking the ball around and forcing City to do plenty of chasing. When the visitors did have possession, they found red and white shirts swarming all over them.

Anderson’s mistimed lunge on Conor Thomas summed up the frantic nature of their play and earned the first yellow card from rookie ref Sam Purkiss. City continued to get little time on the ball and passes were rushed and too often going astray.

James Vaughan’s flick-on did give Clayton Donaldson the chance to run through a back-pedalling defence but he was betrayed by a heavy first touch.

O’Donnell again came to City’s rescue when Kelvin Mellor’s poor defensive header dropped straight to Chris Hussey, whose vicious cross-shot was batted away by the keeper.

As the pressure built, Ben Tozer flashed a header wide from one free-kick and Hussey fired another past the near post, although O’Donnell had it covered.

City had created nothing in the first half hour. But if it had been Cheltenham’s game up to that point, the visitors bossed the final 15 minutes of the half.

Corners proved particularly profitable and they should have scored from the opening one.

Harry Pritchard’s deep kick picked out Ben Richards-Everton unmarked but the centre half planted his header into the side-netting.

The Bantams continued to pick up and caught Cheltenham cold when they broke from a home corner gone wrong.

Dylan Connolly wrestled the ball free and carried it 60 yards before whipping a low cross into the goal-mouth but Donaldson couldn’t sort his feet out to apply a proper finish after it bounced up just in front of him.

It was a very good chance gone begging but City’s dangerous delivery from corners was becoming a growing threat and Scott Flinders pulled off a crucial block to deny Richards-Everton from Matty Palmer’s ball to the far post.

Vaughan worryingly moved within one yellow of a ban after his booking for a trip on Jacob Greaves to end a half where both sides felt they should have gone in ahead.

City were back out well before Cheltenham for the resumption – but it was the hosts who roared from the blocks as veteran striker Luke Varney suddenly came to life.

Sean Long’s angled ball was turned into the box by Gavin Reilly and Varney’s first-time effort on the turn just beat the far post.

But it was City who made the breakthrough on 51 minutes – with Anderson the key figure in both boxes.

His backside came to the rescue when he blocked a Jake Doyle-Hayes shot and then the Bantams set off on a frantic counter.

Vaughan turned the ball wide for the rapid Connolly to take on and Anderson was at the other end to meet his cross.

He still needed three attempts to bundle the ball home from close range as Doyle-Hayes, who had chased him all the way down the pitch, threatened to deny him on the line.

But City’s lead lasted only eight minutes as Cheltenham hit straight back. A clever pass from Broom set up Reilly to rifle past O’Donnell from 12 yards.

The momentum had shifted again and Reilly, on loan from Bristol Rovers, looped a header just wide before having a shot deflected behind.

Cheltenham were not to be denied and had their noses in front after 69 minutes. Ben Tozer launched a long throw into the box where Aston Villa youngster Doyle-Hayes met it on the volley for the first senior goal of his career.

Bowyer responded by throwing on Cooke and Zeli Ismail as it was City showing their powers of recovery this time to level the scores once more.

Donaldson was fouled 30 yards out and Pritchard’s precise free-kick was firmly nodded in by Ben Richards-Everton.

But back came Cheltenham to make it 3-2 from another set-piece as Hussey’s inswinger was powered home by Tozer, despite O’Donnell getting a hand to it.

City had to respond again and Palmer and O’Connor both had shots blocked in the box. Then Vaughan went even closer from an Ismail cross but Flinders clawed it away from close range to leave them empty-handed.