We really are now on the final countdown towards the 2015 Cheltenham Festival with the best four days in the sport now just over three weeks away. Trainers are busy preparing their teams, hacks are busy previewing the races and punters are pouring over the form with ante-post portfolios beginning to be filled out after months of speculation.
We are of course partly to blame for the excitement reaching fever pitch and we make no excuse for that with this Festival shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory. The majority of the Festival horses are now safely tucked away in prep for Prestbury Park but as we saw at Ascot and Gowran Park in particular over this past weekend, there has still been more than enough top racing to follow with Cheltenham firmly in the front of our minds.
British Road to Cheltenham Eye Catchers This Week
All eyes were on Ascot on Saturday as they hosted one of their best jump fixtures of the season and there were plenty of star names on show. Ascot were celebrating 50 years of jump racing with free entry and it worked a treat as thousands of punters poured into the course for a cracking day of sport.
The feature race of the card was the Grade 1 Ascot Chase over 2m5f and we saw a very nice performance from Balder Succes. The Alan King trained chaser has been mixing it top company for some time now and he deserved this success with the Ryanair Chase now firmly on his agenda.
The ground clearly suited Balder Succes as he travelled well before holding off a spirited charge from Ma Filleule, who ran a very nice race for Nicky Henderson it has to be said. Pre-race favourite Ptit Zig fell for Paul Nicholls as he stepped out of novice company, while Ballycasey weakened quickly for Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins. Previous winners of the Ascot Chase include Kauto Star and Cue Card with Balder Succes was cut from 12/1 into 7/1 for the Ryanair Chase as a result of this nice win.
We must also mention the Haydock card from Saturday afternoon as there were a number of performances to take note of. The first race on their card was the Betfred Juvenile Hurdle and we saw a very nice performance from the Nicky Henderson trained Top Notch who looks a very decent sort.
The Seven Barrows team already have Peace And Co on target for the Triumph and Top Notch looks set to join him after this taking success. Top Notch didn't have to work too hard here but he remains unbeaten during his career and was trimmed from 16/1 into a best price 14/1 for the Triumph Hurdle which looks more than fair at this stage.
Other notable winners on the Haydock card included Definitly Red who narrowly defeated Fletchers Flyer in the Prestige Novices Hurdle and both of those look set for the Albert Bartlett next month. The pair of them went well clear of the field and both could be decent with Definitly Red cut from 40's into 25/1 and Fletchers Flyer a best price of 20/1 for the Albert Bartlett after he gave away 3lbs to the winner.
David Pipe also had a winner on the Haydock card in the form of Bygones Sovereign (12/1) who won the Pertemps Qualifier and he now looks on track for the Final at the Cheltenham Festival. It was a decent performance from the 9-year-old who was winning his second race in a week and he deserves his chance at the Festiv, albeit in much tougher company.
Irving started the Kingwell Hurdle down at Wincanton as the warm favourite ahead of a potential Champion hurdle tilt but those hopes are now up in the air after he was soundly beaten by Blue Heron. Irving was alongside Blue Heron but he weakened worryingly with the winner now set for the Aintree Hurdle in April.
Blue Heron may not be going to Cheltenham for Dan Skelton but the trainer may decide to send Zarib to the Festival after he won the Salisbury Novices Hurdle on the Wincanton card. The juvenile was far too good for this field and looks a potential Fred Winter candidate for which is available at 14/1 for after this success.
We must also mention Holywell in this column who had his final prep run ahead of the Gold Cup at Kelso last Thursday. The Jonjo O'Neill trained chaser is a dual Festival winner but had disappointed this season having been well fancied for a third win in March. He returned to form at Kelso with a facile win in the Ivan Straker Memorial Chase and although he didn't beat much, it was a confident display from a horse who always seems to produce his best form on good spring ground. Holywell was trimmed from 12/1 into 10/1 for the Gold Cup after this run and on his best form, he has to be a contender for the big one.
Irish Road to Cheltenham Eye Catchers This Week
There was a top card at Gowran Park on Saturday afternoon as they hosted their Red Mills day and we saw some very interesting performances with Cheltenham in mind. The Red Mills Chase is a Grade 2 contest run over a trip of 2m4f and it was Champagne Fever who won the race as Willie Mullins gave his dual Festival winner a final prep run before heading to Prestbury Park.
Champagne Fever has been up and down the distances this season but he looked at home here as he went straight to the front and looked more than happy to be there as he produced a strong round of jumping. We know Champagne Fever enjoys Cheltenham but which race he will run in next month remains up in the air with punters able to get a best price of 6/1 about winning the Champion Chase, while he was cut from 8/1 into 7/1 for the Ryanair Chase afer this win.
Also on the Gowran Park card on Saturday was the Red Mills Hurdle trial and we saw a nice performance in the one from the improving Kitten Rock. The Edward O'Grady trained horse has improved with every run this season and that was the case once again as he won this Grade 2 contest with more than plenty in hand. Kitten Rock is now 4-4 this winter and deserves to take his chance in the Champion Hurdle for which he was cut from 40/1 into 33/1 for by Bet365 after this win.
All eyes were on Navan in Ireland on Sunday and although it wasn't a top level fixture, we still managed to see some very nice winners. The Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle over 2m5f was one of the highlights and we saw another win from Dedigout who has put together a strong run of form this winter. He pulled clear of Zaidpour, who is a decent yard stick, while Briar Hill took a fall at the last when looming up but it was Dedigout who won and he was cut from 25s into 20/1 for the World Hurdle which looks fair, although he won't run if the ground is too fast!
There was also another winner for Gigginstown on the Navan card with Very Wood returning to form to the delight of connections. The Albert Bartlett winner from last season has been disappointing over fences so far but he looked good here as he won the Ten Up Novice Chase over 3m. He is clearly a strong stayer and would have a chance in the RSA Chase on his best form with his price for that race slashed from 40/1 into 20/1 by Sky Bet as a result of this win while he also has the four miler (10/1) as an option.
Dual Festival winner Holywell trimmed for the Gold Cup after facile Kelso success
Grade 1 Ascot Chase goes to Balder Succes who now looks like a major Ryanair Chase contender for Alan King
Top Notch now 14/1 for the Triumph Hurdle after his nice win at Haydock on Saturday for Nicky Henderson
Champagne Fever cut for the Champion Chase and the Ryanair after win in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park.