Everyone take a deep breath. The Christmas and New Year period is behind us and that means we can take a considered look back at the past week or two to assess the best performances from both sides of the Irish sea. There was hardly any time to tuck into a turkey sandwich to be honest, let alone celebrate the arrival of 2016, as we planted ourselves in front of the TV for the best jump racing has to offer and now is the time to take a look back.
In this bumper edition of our road to Cheltenham column, we dissect the action from Kempton, Leopardstown and everywhere else as we look to point out all the market movers and eye catchers with the rest of the season in mind.
Brilliant Kempton Card Produced Christmas Cracker
When looking back at the Christmas Racing action there is only one place to start and that is at Kempton Park for their traditional two day fixture. The King George VI Chase was of course the highlight on Boxing Day and it certainly did not disappoint this season as Cue Card chased down Vautour in the shadow of the winning post to claim a famous win.
Vautour travelled with all of his usual enthusiasm on his first start up at 3m and although he did jump out to his left slightly on occasion, he looked all over the winner as he came to the last. Ruby Walsh hadn't banked on the fast finishing Cue Card though and the Colin Tizzard horse backed up his Betfair Chase win with a King George success and he is now one Gold Cup win away from the £1m bonus.
Cue Card finished like a train and has to be considered a genuine Gold Cup contender at a price of 5/1 (from 10s) with Sky Bet as a result of that win and the way he finished off his race at Kempton was particularly eye catching with that race in mind.
It would be wrong to say that Vautour didn't stay 3m but connections are now left with a conundrum as they pick his Cheltenham festival target. Following his King George 2nd, Vautour is a best price 13/8 for the Ryanair Chase and with the same owner and trainer also having Djakadam in their ranks, a drop in trip could be on the cards for the 2015 JLT winner. We should also mention Don Cossack who started well fancied but came down at the 2nd last when plugging on and he should not be ruled out of Gold Cup contention on the basis of this run although he would need to tarevl a whole lot better to feature in March.
Elsewhere on that Kempton card we saw Faugheen bounce back with an easy win in the Christmas Hurdle and he looks bang on track to defend his title in March. Faugheen slammed The New One to win at Kempton for the second time and as such he is a best price of 4/6 for the Champion Hurdle at the time of writing.
The Nicky Henderson trained Altior won his 4th race on the bounce this season at Kempton on Boxing Day and this was by far his most impressive run to-date. He looks to have a real engine as well as heart on his side which should see him go to Cheltenham with a chance and at 8/1 (from 10s) with Bet365 for the Supreme Novices Hurdle, he might make some appeal for each-way punters.
The two other Kempton performances of note over Christmas came of fences as Ar Mad enhanced his star as a novice chaser and the great Sprinter Sacre continued his renaissance. Ar Mad battled to beat Vaniteux to win the Wayward Lad Novices chase and although connections say he is best going right handed, he will surely run in the Arkle in March and was cut from 20/1 into 12/1 by Bet Victor as a result of this latest success for Gary Moore. A more than fair price given his class.
Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy produced perhaps one of the moments of the year as the two old champions came to the last together in the Desert Orchid Chase on the 27th December. Sire De Grugy looked to be getting on top but Sprinter Sacre produced a stunning jump at the last to claim the win and lets hope both can get to the Champion Chase in one piece to take on Un De Sceaux, who himself fell on seasonal debut recently.
It was a great sight to see the two famous horses battle each other and Gina Harding summed up their battle nicely on Social Media;
Kempton might be the highlight in the UK but the focus in Ireland was very much on Leopardstown between Christmas and the New Year. The four day fixtures was packed full of superstar horses as you would expect and there were plenty of Festival clues along the way.
The big race on St Stephens Day at Leopardstown was the Racing Post Novice Chase with some of the best Arkle contenders from the Emerald Isle clashing in heavy ground. In the end though it was no contest as the brilliant Douvan simply destroyed some excellent horses and it is hard to pick holes in the Willie Mullins trained Supreme winner.
Douvan jumped like a stag before pulling 18 lengths clear of Sizing John and he was slashed across the board for the Arkle as a result with 4/6 or 4/7 the general price about him winning that race in March. Sizing John was smashed up by Douvan and is likely to be stepped up in trip as a result with his JLT Novices chase price of 12/1 a more than fair one despite this defeat given his class.
Willie Mullins got he ball rolling with Douvan at Leopardstown and as you would expect, the winners kept coming in for the dominant handler......
Long Dog produced a career best for Mullins to win the Future Champions Novice Hurdle from the very good Tombstone and he has had a terrific novice season so far. He could go to either the Supreme or the Neptune in March with each-way claims but there is no such debate over the target of Don Poli who was another W.Mullins winner over Christmas.
Don Poli is already a dual Festival winner and a dour stayer on his best day and he once again picked up a big win as he won the Lexus Chase over Christmas. It wasn't an impressive performance from Don Poli but that is his way to be honest and as he always seems to do, he did enough and claimed the win ahead of first Lieutenant. Sky Bet pushed him out to 11/2 (from 5s) for the Gold Cup after this win but make no mistake, Don Poli could be the ideal horse for that race in the spring.
Don Poli didn't look too impressive in winning the Lexus but Willie Mullins was quick to take to social media after the race;
The final day of the Leopardstown Christmas meeting saw Nichols Canyon follow up his Morgiana win with a win in the Ryanair Hurdle although he had to work for his victory in very testing ground. He was made to work very hard by the improving Identity Thief but Nichols Canyon got the win in the end as he showdd plenty of heart. Paddy Power pushed him out to 11/2 (from 5s) for the Champion Hurdle as a result of this run which looks about right and he remaisn the main threat to Faugheen in this divison.
No More Heroes has been very impressive for Gordon Elliott since taking to fences and that continued as he won the 3m Grade 1 race at Leopardstown and he is another one who is yet to put a foot wrong this winter. An unlucky loser in the Albert Bartlett, No More Heroes jumped and powered clear at Leopardstown and he impressed Ladbrokes enough for them to cut him from 5/1 into 7/2F for the RSA Chase.
The Christmas period also saw a juvenile hurdler finally make a major impression this season with Ivanovich Gorbatov impressive at Leopardstown on the 27th December. A highly rated flat performer, the Aidan O'Brien trained horse jumped and travelled well on his hurdling debut and with better ground likely to suit come the spring, he is now a clear Triumph Hurdle favourite at a best price of 7/1 with Betfred.
Other Eye Catchers Over the Festive Period
There was plenty of other sport to take note of away from Kempton and Leopardstown and a number of stand our performances do stick in the mind with half an eye on the future.
One of those was certainly Barters Hill who continued his season with a win in the Challow Novices Hurdle at Newbury and he remains a horse of the very highest potential. He won at Newbury against a very small field but he did it well and he is now as short as 4/1 (from 8s) with Bet365 for the Albert Bartlett in March.
One horse Barters Hill could face in the Albert Bartlett is Up For Review who is yet another Willie Mullins novice hurdler to keep onside. A decent bumper horse. Up For Review was super impressive as he won the Grade 2 Novice Hurdle at Punchestown on New Years Eve in very testing ground and he was trimmed from 7/1, into 6/1, for the Albert Bartlett as a result. Take you pick between those two at this stage but for me Barters Hill remains the one with the most potential.
We should also mention Bellshill and Yorkhill who are yet another couple of potential superstars for Willie Mullins and both Graham Wylie horses picked up wins over the past week or so. Yorkhill won the Tolworth at Sandown in very testing ground and is a best price 8/1 for both the Supreme Novices Hurdle and the Neptune, whilst the same owner also saw Bellshill win a weak 2m4f Grade 1 at Naas on Sunday and Paddy Power cut him from 5/1, into 9/2F, for the Neptune as a result. Expect Graham Wylie to keep these two apart in March.
Bumper New Year Crowd At Cheltenham
There was well over 30,000 packed into Cheltenham on New Years Day for their traditional fixture and the racing lived up to it with a number of nice displays to take note of. The big race was the Dipper Novices Chase over 2m5f and with the ground extremely testing, we saw a strong stayer in the form of Seeyouatmidnight claim the win. The Sandy Thomson trained chaser was too good for Blakion and was cut from 25/1, into 16/1, by Bet Victor for the RSA Chase as a result, although conditions are likely to be much different come spring.
Village Vic won his second big Cheltenham handicap of the season for Philip Hobbs and could yet be a factor in the Ryanair Chase (25/1), while Camping Ground hacked up in the Relkeel Hurdle to enter World Hurdle contention as he pulled well clear of some very nice horses.
It was a massive win for trainer Robert Walford with the horse clearly happy back over hurdles and his World Hurdle price was slashed from 20/1, into 8/1, with Bet Victor which looks a little short given the extreme nature of these conditions. Current World Hurdle hero Cole Harden ran ok over an inadequate trip back in 3rd and might still appeal to some to retain his crown at 10/1, especially if the ground comes up good in March.
Festive Period Road To Cheltenham Summary
Cue Card 5/1 to win the Gold Cup after claiming King George Vi Chase at Kempton
Willie Mullins wins the Lexus Chase for the first time with Don Poli at Leopardstown