It's that time of the week when we look back at the past few days of action in the racing world with the Road to Cheltenham blog once again full of festival clues. The weather has been terrible around the the UK and Ireland recently but that didn't stop the racing from going ahead with plenty of top sport at Sandown and Punchestown in particular over the weekend. As always on a Monday morning, we have picked out the key performances from the weekend with a particular focus on those all-important Cheltenham Festival market movers.
The weather was certainly a major factor at Sandown on Saturday with the course playing host to an all-chase card live on Channel 4. The hurdle track was deemed un-fit which left the Scilly Isles Novices Chase as the feature race of the afternoon. In bottomless ground, it was Oscar Whisky who claimed the highlight with a strong staying performance for Nicky Henderson. The former top class hurdler made a couple of jumping mistakes but in the end he was far too good for Manyriverstocross as he won going away under Barry Geraghty.
Oscar Whisky is on target for the JLT Novices Chase at Cheltenham next month and he would have to be a live contender on his very best form. This was a decent performance but he didn't beat much in truth which lead to one firm lengthening his Festival price out to 10/1 from 8/1 for the JLT.
The conditions were equally as testing up at Wetherby on Saturday but that didn't stop one horse in particular making a strong impression. The Charlie Longsdon trained Ely Brown was an impressive winner of the Grade 2 Totepool Towton Novices Chase over three miles, one furlong. Under a good ride from Noel Fehily, the nine-year-old took advantage of the favourite falling to win a touch cosily in the end.
Connections were quick to say that the horse will be aimed at the National Hunt Chase at the Festival now with the horse clearly a strong stayer. Bet Victor were taken with this success as they cut Ely Brown from 25/1 into 14/1 for the four miler at Cheltenham, and on this basis he is certainly a dour stayer at the very least
Another card that just about survived the weather this weekend was at Ffos Las with the Welsh track playing host to their Champion Hurdle meeting. We saw an excellent weight carrying performance in the feature race with Saphir Du Rheu claiming the Welsh Champion Hurdle. The Paul Nicholls trained five-year-old held off Whisper in a close finish to prove that the handicapper is yet to get a hold of him this season.
Saphir Du Rheu has rocketed up the ratings this winter but that didn't matter here as he won his third race on the bounce, producing a career best in the process. He is expected to make a better chaser in time while it should be noted that he is far from a certain runner at the Festival according to connections. Despite that, Saphir Du Rheu is the 7/1 favourite for the Coral Cup and 8/1 favourite for the Pertemps Final at this stage, which highlights just how highly he is rated.
The feature card in Ireland on Sunday was at Punchestown with the Tied Cottage Chase over two miles the highlight. The Tied Cottage has been won by the likes of Moscow Flyer and Sizing Europe in the past which alone is enough to ensure that it is a race to keep a close eye on. On Sunday we saw a comfortable win for Arvika Ligeonniere who once again proved that on his day, he is very good indeed.
It was another big race success for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh with the nine-year-old scoring by 14 lengths from Toner D'Oudairies. Mullins said after the race that the Queen Mother Champion Chase is the target for the horse and he was cut from 16/1 to 10/1 for that race as a result of this Grade 1 success.
Mullins and Walsh teamed up again in the same card to saddle the exciting Wicklow Brave to a win in the EBF Novice Hurdle over two miles. It was a fifth win on the bounce for a five-year-old who looks to be improving with every run. He showed a good turn of foot to pull clear of Lieutenant Colnel on the run-in and Mullins was quick to say after the race that Cheltenham is very much on his agenda. It is difficult to compare Wicklow Brave to the other Mullins novice hurdlers but this was impressive on the eye at least, he was cut from 25/1 to 12/1 for the Supreme Novices Hurdle as a result of this win.
The other notable performance on the Punchestown card at the weekend came from Love Rory who jumped to victory in the Cross Country Chase. Enda Bolger has a great record in the Cross Country race at Cheltenham and he now looks likely to send this impressive six-year-old to the Festival next month. He went clear of Big Shu in testing ground and was installed at a best price of 8/1 for the Cross Country Chase at the Festival as a result of this triumph.
Musselburgh hosted their Cheltenham trials day on Sunday afternoon and there were some interesting performances north of the border. The stand-out winner was certainly Broughton, who won the Scottish Triumph Hurdle Trial for trainer John Ferguson. The juvenile was beaten a head by Fox Norton at Doncaster in January but was far too good here as he won by five lengths from Clarcam who also ran well in second place. Broughton looks to be improving and is fully entitled to take his chance in a wide open Triumph Hurdle, for which he was cut from 25/1 into 16/1 for.
Scottish trainer Peter Niven also tasted success at Musselburgh with Clever Cookie winning the Scottish County Hurdle over two miles. It was a taking performance from the six-year-old and he now looks set for a trip down south to Cheltenham next month. Paddy Power were impressed enough to install the horse into the County Hurdle market as a 20/1 shot and on this basis at least, he could well appeal to some each-way punters.