The Hennessy Gold Cup meeting at Newbury is always one of the highlights of the National Hunt calendar and once again the three day meeting didn't disappoint. The main event was of course was the Hennessy itself on Saturday but as always, there were plenty of Cheltenham Festival clues to be found across the three day fixture.
As well as the Newbury card, there was also a cracking meeting up at Newcastle on Saturday and some top class Grade One action from Fairyhouse on Sunday, to complete yet another busy week on the road to Cheltenham...
Newbury is the first port of call with the Berkshire track playing host to the popular Hennessy Festival. The action kicked off on Thursday with a good card and as you would expect, there were some nice performances to take note of. The highlight was the performance of Just A Par, who won the Grade 2 RSA Worcester Novices' Chase over three miles in good style. The Paul Nicholls trained six-year-old looked highly impressive as he swept aside the solid Third Intention by 14 lengths.
Paul Nicholls has long been bullish about Just A Par and he certainly looks a strong stayer to keep an eye on. The RSA Chase is likely to be the Festival aim for the horse if he can remain fit and he was cut from 25/1, to 14/1 for the RSA as a result of his Newbury win. The Feltham Chase on Boxing Day at Kempton Park could well be his next target where we should learn more about just how good the horse is.
There was more success for Paul Nicholls at Newbury on Friday with Wonderful Charm and Calipto both claiming impressive wins. Wonderful Charm looks like another staying novice on target for the RSA Chase this season after he won the Grade 2, Berkshire Novices' Chase. The five-year-old won his third race on the bounce this season and looked good in doing so to enhance his Festival claims. He was trimmed into 12/1 from 14/1 for the RSA Chase after this win, while the Jewson Novices Chase could also be a possibility, for which he can currently be backed at a best price of 12/1.
Calipto won the Q Associates Juvenile Hurdle for Nicholls and he now enters the Triumph Hurdle picture. The French recruit was having his first run in Britain for Nicholls and he duly quickened up when asked to after the last to impress. It is difficult to judge the bare form but Calipto looked good and was introduced at a best price of 20/1 for the Triumph Hurdle as a result of this Newbury success.
The highlight on Saturday at Newbury was certainly the Hennessy Gold Cup with Nicky Henderson claiming the prize for a second year-in-a-row. Triolo D'Alene won the race under a cracking ride from Barry Geraghty ahead of Rocky Creek who also ran well. Triolo D'Alene may be aimed at the Grand National while Rocky Creek was trimmed into 33/1 for the Gold Cup as a result of his decent performance back in second.
At Fishers Cross started the Long Distance Hurdle on Saturday as a hot favourite but a number of jumping errors proved costly for the Albert Bartlett winner. A shuddering mistake at the second last put paid to his challenge as he tried to get on terms with Celestial Halo and the jury remains out on At Fishers Cross at this stage. Celestial Halo on the other hand jumped and travelled with enthusiasm to win with something in hand to enhance his own Festival claims. The World Hurdle betting was shaken up as a result of the race on Saturday with Celestial Halo cut from 20/1 into 12/1 for the race while At Fishers Cross lost his grip at the head of the World Hurdle market, drifting out to 6/1 and leaving Big Buck's, who is yet to return from injury, as the clear favourite to win a fifth World Hurdle.
Meanwhile, up at Newcastle on Saturday it was the Fighting Fifth Hurdle taking centre stage. The race has developed into a nice Champion Hurdle trial in recent years and we saw a classy performance from My Tent Or Yours. AP McCoy was on-board the highly rated novice hurdler as he stepped up in class for the first time and he didn't disappoint. Cockney Sparrow ran well back in second but he never landed a blow on the winner, who could now be aimed at the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. 'MTOY' was good enough to finish second in the Supreme Novices Hurdle last season and was trimmed into 4/1 from 5/1 for the Champion Hurdle as a result of this strong performance.
One other horse to have made a big impression at Newcastle on Saturday was the impressive Ballyalton who managed to turn over Oscar Rock in the 2m6f novice hurdle. Oscar Rock started as a hot odds-on favourite for the race but he was unable to get past the game Ballyalton with both expected to improving for chasing, later in their careers. Ballyalton was installed in the Neptune Novices Hurdle betting as short as 12/1 after the race, while Oscar Rock was on the drift, with Bet365 doubling his price from 8/1 to 16/1 for the same race.
Attention turned to Ireland on Sunday with Fairyhouse hosting one of the best pre-Christmas cards in the sport. The action kicked off predictably, with Willie Mullins claiming a big win in the Bar One Juvenile 3-Y-O Hurdle over two miles. Analifet won her second race of the season under a motionless Ruby Walsh with most already expecting her to be the best Irish Juvenile hurdler this season. It was a facile success and she will need to improve, but even taking that into account, Analifet is now as short as 8/1 for Cheltenham and fighting for favouritism in the Triumph Hurdle market.
There were three Grade One races on the Fairyhouse card on Sunday with the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle the first of them. The Tullow Tank claimed the win with a strong staying performance over two miles to wear down the front running Renneti. It was a good win from the five-year-old with one firm introducing him as a 14/1 shot for the Supreme Novices Hurdle as a result.
The Drinmore Novice Chase was the next race on the card and we saw another strong stayer emerge in the form of Don Cossack. The Gordon Elliott trained horse wore down his rivals after the last fence following a good round of jumping and he remains one to watch with Cheltenham in mind. The RSA Chase remains his most likely target, for which he was cut from 16/1 into 10/1 by Coral, following his latest Grade One victory.
Perhaps the feature race of the day was the Hatton's Grace Hurdle as Champion Hurdle hope, Jezki, won his second race of the season. AP McCoy always looked comfortable on the horse although a slight mistake at the last saw the horse made to work for his Grade One win. Zaidpour ran well back in second but never looked like beating Jezki. It was a solid run from the horse but he will need to improve plenty to win a Champion Hurdle with the bookmakers generally unmoved after this win.