Festival Trials Day is always a key date on the 'Road to the Cheltenham' and that was certainly the case once again this campaign.
We enjoyed a thrilling weekend of sport with more than enough action at Prestbury Park on Saturday alone to keep us talking on a Monday morning. As well as Trials Day on Saturday, there were also some great cards at Doncaster and Leopardstown over the weekend with a number of Festival hopefuls strutting their stuff and providing plenty of clues ahead of the main event, which is now just six weeks away!.
As always on a Monday, we have highlighted the stand-out performances from the last seven days and it's been a busy week with a number of the major Cheltenham Festival markets shaken up.
The stands were packed at Cheltenham on Saturday with the now hugely popular Trials Day producing some fine performances. The star name on the cast list was the return of the legendary, Big Buck's, who was making his first start for 14 months. The four-times World Hurdle winner started the Cleeve Hurdle as a warm favourite but after appearing to hit the front too early, he tired off of the back of the last to fade into a close-up third up the hill.
The surprise winner of the Cleeve Hurdle was Knockara Beau, who got up to win at a massive price of 66/1 for connections. It was a massive shock as Big Buck's lost for the first time since 2008 with At Fishers Cross returning to some sort of form in second place. The ground was very testing which must be considered when looking at the result and if Big Buck's improves for the run, he will remain a major threat for the World Hurdle. As a result of his third place, Big Buck's drifted out to 9/4 from 2/1 for the World Hurdle while, At Fishers Cross halved in price from 12 to 6/1 for the same race.
The first race on the Trials Day card at Cheltenham at the weekend was the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial and we saw an impressive display from Le Rocher. The Nick Williams trained juvenile clearly enjoyed the deep ground as he held off Kentucky Hyden with an impressive turn of foot up the hill to win with plenty in hand. Le Rocher was halved in price from 16/1 into 8/1 with one firm for the Triumph Hurdle after this win although it remains to be seen how he fares in better ground.
There was an equally impressive display in the Neptune Investment Novices Hurdle with Red Sherlock continuing his unbeaten career over obstacles. The David Pipe trained five-year-old came out on top in a close battle with Rathvinden with the pair of them pulling miles clear of the third placed horse. It looked top class form from the winner and although he could be better over further in time, it is likely that he will stay at this trip for the Festival. Betfred were certainly impressed with the run with Red Sherlock cut from 16/1 to 8/1 for the Neptune in March, while Rathvinden lost little in defeat and is a best price 20/1 for the same race.
One horse who always seems to save his best for Cheltenham is The Giant Bolster and he proved that again on Saturday to win the Argento Chase. The nine-year-old is a former Gold Cup runner-up and in first time head gear he looked back to his best at the weekend to pull clear of a decent field and win the Argento. The Giant Bolster will be once again heading to the Gold Cup in March and was slashed from 66/1 into 25/1 for that race after this latest success, which may appeal to each-way punters.
Whilst the majority of the attention on Saturday was on Cheltenham but there was also some excellent racing to take in up at Doncaster.The Grade 2 Racing Post Lightning Stakes was of particular interest with a number of Arkle Chase contenders taking each other on. Rock On Ruby missed the race with the ground too soft which left Valdez to win his third race on the bounce for trainer Alan King. Choc Thornton was on-board for the win as he picked up a front running Arnaud in the final stages with both emering with plenty of credit.
It was a solid run from Valdez who could still have some improvement in him, which he will need to win an Arkle in March. The bookmakers were however reasonably impressed with the run with Valdez trimmed from 16/1 into 12/1 for the Arkle, while Arnaud may appeal to some at a general price of 25/1 for the same race.
There is no doubt whatsoever that Annie Power was the star attraction at the Yorkshire track with the mare once again travelling over from Ireland. The six-year-old cruised to victory in the Mares Hurdle over two miles on good to soft ground with Ruby Walsh motionless on-board. Annie Power remains unbeaten and she is still high up in the betting for the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle, the Champion Hurdle and the World Hurdle at the Festival following this latest success. The World Hurdle is perhaps the most likely target for the with Annie Power trimmed from 3/1 into 11/4 for that one after the latest round of action this weekend.
Malcolm Jefferson always seems to have some nice horses up north and that is true this season with Urban Hymn impressive on his way to winning the River Don Novices Hurdle over three miles half a furlong. It is difficult to judge what he beat here as he worked hard up the run-in to hold off The Sue Smith trained Blakemount with both looking strong stayers. Urban Hymn was trimmed from 20/1 into 14/1 for the Albert Bartlett after the race and could be interesting, while Blakemount could also appeal in the same race at 20/1.
The action moved over to Ireland on Sunday with Leopardstown playing host to an excellent card. The Irish Champion Hurdle was the feature race of the day and once again it was Hurricane Fly, Jezki and Our Conor who clashed for the second time in succession. Over Christmas it was Hurricane Fly who won the Ryanair Hurdle and it was the Willie Mullins horse who once again came out on top after a thrilling finish.
It was a remarkable 19th Grade 1 success for Hurricane Fly as he pulled clear of an impressive Our Conor after the last, to the delight of Ruby Walsh. The ten-year-old showed some good speed to claim the win and once again proved himself as the one to beat in the Champion Hurdle market. Our Conor was swinging on the bridle coming to the last and looked back to his best but just didn't have enough to get past the legendary winner. Hurricane Fly was trimmed from 10/3 into 11/4 for the Champion Hurdle, while Our Conor was shaved a point from 7/1 to 6/1 for the same race.
The main support race on the card was the Irish Arkle Chase over two miles one furlong and we saw a good win from Trifolium. Pre-race favourite Defy Logic was never in the race and could be injured leaving Trifolium as the comfortable winner. Bryan Cooper gave the horse a good ride on heavy ground as he pulled clear of Felix Yonger who was well fancied for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh.
Trifolium may well improve for better ground at Cheltenham which ensures that he is a major Arkle contender at Cheltenham, for which he can be be backed at 8/1 from 25/1 for. Connections of Felix Yonger said afterwards that he would want better ground and maybe a step up in trip to the JLT Novices Chase, for which he is available at 10/1 for after this performance.
Willie Mullins may have been slightly disappointed with Felix Yonger but he tasted more success on the card with the exciting Sure Reef winning the Synergy Solutions Novice Hurdle over 2m4f. The race was run at a painfully slow pace but he quickened up well in the end in heavy ground to prove himself as a strong staying type for the Champion Trainer. The Albert Bartlett looks the most likely target for his at Cheltenham with Paddy Power installing him as an interesting 16/1 shot for the race after this success.