It has been a busy few days on the road to the Cheltenham Festival this week with any number of horse staking their claims for some of the big races in March. The Open Meeting at Cheltenham is always one of the big fixtures before Christmas and we have seen a plethora of top class horses take their chance at Prestbury Park over the weekend. We have picked out the horses we believe have made the biggest impression on both sides of the Irish Sea over the past few days with the Cheltenham Festival firmly in the front of our minds
The big race of the past week was the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham on Saturday and we saw an impressive weight carrying performance from Al Ferof as he won the race for trainer Paul Nicholls. The grey travelled really well in soft ground and with 11st 8lbs on his back he clearly enjoyed the step up in trip to 2m4f having been an Arkle horse last season. Connections are now keen to test him over three miles in the King George while the Ryanair Chase looks the likely Festival aim for a former Supreme Novices Hurdle winner.
There was more success for Paul Nicholls over the weekend in the form of Far West who won the first big Triumph Hurdle Trial of the season at Cheltenham. Ruby Walsh gave Far West a cracking ride as he pulled clear of Vasco Du Ronceray and he looked every inch a potential Triumph Hurdle winner even at this early stage of the season. Paddy Power were impressed enough to cut Far West into 8/1 for the Triumph Hurdle having previously been as big as 25/1 prior to his win over the weekend.
Elsewhere at the Open Meeting we saw two potential RSA Chase contenders emerge for David Pipe in the form of Dynaste and Our Father. Dynaste defeated Fingal Bay in some style on Friday to mark him out as contender while stable mate Our Father hacked up in the Novice Chase on Sunday to jump into the Festival reckoning. The two grey horses are now towards the head of the RSA Chase Betting with Our Father 8/1 from 33/1 and Dynaste now 5/1 in places from 12/1 for the big race at Cheltenham.
We have also seen plenty of movement in the Arkle Chase betting over the past day or so following the impressive performance of Captain Conan on Sunday. The Nicky Henderson horse jumped with great style on his chasing debut as he put Sire De Grugy firmly in his place and a potential clash with stable mate Simonsig at the Festival is a mouthwatering prospect. Captain Conan was as big as 12/1 for the Arkle before the race on Sunday but is now as a short as 7/1 in places following his extremeley impressive chasing debut.
There have been plenty of Festival eye catchers on the other side of the Irish Sea as well over the past seven days with Hurricane Fly chief among them. The 2011 Champion Hurdler returned on Sunday with a win in the Morgiana Hurdle and he remains a warm order for the 2013 race at the Festival. Go Native was running a massive race before falling at the last and plenty of ante post punters will no doubt have a cheeky each way Champion Hurdle punt on the Noel Meade horse at a big price.
Last Thursday we saw Sizing Europe hack up to win the Clonmel Oil Chase and with the King George at Kempton now on the agenda his Festival race remains anyone's guess at this stage. Tarla continued her impressive start to the season with a win on her chasing debut on the same Clonmel card for Willie Mullins. Her future plans remain unclear with hurdling still a possibility leaving the chances of a clash with stable mate Quevega at Cheltenham hanging in the balance.
It has been an informative week for fans of National Hunt Racing with the Cheltenham Festival now less than four months away. All of the major yards on both sides of the Irish Sea are now sending their star names into battle as they look to plot the route to Cheltenham for their star turns. That will continue over the coming weeks with the Betfair Chase at Haydock and the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury just two of the big races on the horizon.