Well well well, what a week we have had on the Road to Cheltenham. We have barely been able to catch our breath today as we digest the action from the past seven days and with the Festival now just over four weeks away, we can almost spell the best four days in all of sport. As always on a Monday, we have reviewed all of the action from the past week from both sides of the Irish Sea as we chart all of the major results and market movers with the Festival firmly in the front of our mind.
There were two stunning cards over the weekend with Newbury on Saturday and then Leopardstown on Sunday, while the most famous face in the sport also decided to announce his retirement on Saturday to add another remarkable angle to a remarkable weekend.
Festival Eye Catchers from Newbury on Saturday
All eyes in the UK on Saturday fell on Newbury as the Berkshire track hosted their Super Saturday card and my word it certainly lived up to its billing. The first race on the day was the Feel The Rush At Betfair Novices Hurdle which was run just over 2m and we saw a very nice winner emerge. The John Ferguson trained Qewy simply bolted clear of the well fancied Cardinal Walter on the run in to mark himself out as one to watch.
John Ferguson has a very nice team of ex flat horses over hurdles at his disposal this season and Qewy more than fits in on this form. He looked a little quirky and green but they way he quickened up was impressive which led to his Supreme Novices Hurdle price being slashed from 66/1 into 25/1 with Skybet which looks about fair at this stage.
The first graded race on the Newbury Super Saturday card was the Denman Chase over 3m and there was a real treat for fans both before and during this one. The fans at Newbury were treated to an appearance from Denman himself before the off and perhaps aptly, we saw a performance that that Tank would have been proud of during his career.
Coneygree, who was having just his third ever start of fences, was thrown into the deep end despite being a novice and he looked right at home as he won in hugely impressive fashion. The 8-year-old jumped straight to the front and stayed there for the entire trip as he galloped a very decent field into the ground. The Mark Bradstock horse jumped like a stag throughout and connections are now seriously considering sending the horse to the Gold Cup, rather than the RSA Chase.
It was hard not to be impressed by Coneygree with solid yard sticks like Houblon Des Obeaux and Unioniste comfortably dispatched. Coneygree was cut into 5/1 for the RSA Chase while his Gold Cup price was cut from 28/1 into 12/1 by Bet365.
Next up on the Newbury card was the Grade 2 Betfair Game Spirit Chase over 2m1f and it proved to be a thrilling renewal. All eyes were on the returning Champion Chaser Sire De Grugy who was having his first run of the season but in the end it was the improving Mr Mole who claimed the honours. Mr Mole gave the field a ten length start when he played around before the off but AP McCoy got the horse going and he was well on top when Sire De Grugy unseated Jamie Moore two out.
Sire De Grugy didn't jump very well the whole way round to be honest and his Queen Mother Champion Chase is now out to 6/1 from 7/2 with Paddy Power as a result. Mr Mole's price has gone the other way though with Bet Victor now offering a best price of 10/1 from 33/1 about a horse who has turned his career round recently. That credit has to go to Paul Nicholls who appears to be now getting the best out of the horse and Mr Mole is now another fascinating addition to the already intriguing Champion Chase picture next month.
There was more big news after the race when AP McCoy, who had just won his 200th race of the season on Mr Mole, announced that he would be retiring at the end of the season. It was major news from the most famous face in the sport and it only added more drama to a great day of sport.
The Betfair Hurdle is always a competitive race and we saw a slightly surprise winner in the form of Violet Dancer. The 20/1 winner gave Gary and Joshua Moore a big win on the day and he looks like a progressive horse who could have more to come given that he is just five. Cheltenian ran well in second, while Activial also ran well for Harry Fry and both of those would have a chance in something like the County Hurdle if they go to Cheltenham next month.
We also saw an appearance from the RSA Chase fancy, Kings Palace, who made it 3-3 this term with a win in the 3m Novices Chase on Saturday. Other than a couple of iffy jumps, the David Pipe trained horse did little wrong and he remains a general 5/1 shot for the RSA Chase after this latest success.
Festival Eye Catchers at Leopardstown on Sunday
Attention turned to Leopardstown on Sunday afternoon as they hosted one of their very best cards of the season with no less than four Grade 1 races to gorge ourselves on. The first was the Spring Juvenile Hurdle which has proven to be a key race for the Irish challengers on the way to the Triumph at the Festival and it looked a decent race.
There was a win for Willie Mullins which was no surprise but it wasn't his first string as Petite Parisienne upset the boys to claim a very nice success. The Gigginstown owned horse travelled really well on her first start in graded company and she pulled clear of the highly touted Kalkir on the run in to the surprise of most. Both are on target for the Triumph Hurdle and both would have a chance with Petite Parisienne slashed from 25/1 into 8/1 for the Triumph Hurdle as a result of this very taking win.
The second Grade 1 at Leopardstown on Sunday was the Deloitte Novice Hurdle over 2m2f and once again it was Willie Mullins who claimed the win but not with what the market considered to be his first string. The Graham Wylie owned Nichols Canyon won the Royal Bond earlier in the season before unseating Ruby Walsh last time out but he bounced back in style to win in very nice fashion.
Ruby Walsh let Nichols Canyon jump straight to the front and the five-year-old clearly enjoyed himself as he set a strong gallop with the rest of the field unable to land a blow. The most impressive part of the performance was the jumping of Nichols Canyon, who now has options ahead of him after this defeat of the highly touted Alviso Ville. Connections were quick to say that the horse would get further in time although the Neptune looks like his Festival target for which he as cut from 20/1 into 7/1 for by Bet365 in the hours after this win.
The flogas Novice Chase over 2m5f was next up on the card and we saw an absolute classic race as Apache Stronghold and Valseur Lido went eye to eye on the run in. Valseur Lido came to the last travelling well but after being held up by Paul Carberry, Apache Stronghold produced a late run to win by half a length. In truth, both of these horses look like top notchers and both have to be live Cheltenham Festival contenders if they turn up fit and well.
Apache Stronghold was cut from 12/1 into 7/1 for the JLT Novies Chase with Ladbrokes, while Valsuer Lido is available at 10/1 for the same race or 12/1 for the RSA Chase, which remains an option for the Willie Mullins trained in-mate.
They were only the starters to the main course though as the Irish Hennessy Gold Cup took centre stage at Leopardstown and it delivered one of the best races of the year. It was almost written in the stars that AP McCoy would steal the show after he announced his impeding retirement and right on cue, the Champion Jockey produced a typically brilliant ride to win the Hennessy on-board the excellent Carlingford Lough.
The John Kiely trained horse came on a bundle for his first start on the Lexus and managed to hold off a brilliant performance from young Foxrock to deafening cheers from the stands. Lord Windermere also ran very well for a long time ahead of the defense of his Gold Cup crown but rightly it was all eyes on Carlingford Lough and AP McCoy. Lord Windermere is into 12/1 from 14s for the Gold Cup with Bet Victor now, while Carlingford Lough is now as short as 10/1 from 18/1 for the same race after this memorable success.
Other Eye Catchers this Week
Newbury and Punchestown were the main two cards of the weekend but there were still some other nice performances to take note of with Cheltenham in mind. One of those was certainly Vibrato Valtat who won the Kingmaker Novices Chase at Warwick on Saturday in very taking circumstances. The grey galloped and jumped really well before pulling well clear of a good field without really coming off the bridle.
Bet Victor were impressed enough to cut Vibrato Valtat from 12/1 into 6/1 for the Arkle for Paul Nicholls and that wasn't the only novice chaser from Ditcheat to impress this weekend.
The Champion Trainer also saddled Southfield Theatre to victory at Exeter on Sunday and he looks bang on track for the RSA Chase next month. The seven-year-old beat the very decent Melodic Rendezvous over an inadequate trip at Exeter and he was trimmed a couple of points into 12/1 from 14/1 for the RSA Chase as a result which looks reasonably fair.
We don't often mention the Hunter Chase division in this column each week but we must today following a very taking performance from Teaforthree over the weekend. The Rebecca Curtis trained 11-year-old has been a top class staying chaser for some time now and although his main aim will once again be the Grand National, he could well turn up for the Foxhunters Chase at the Festival.
He won a 2m4f Hunters Chase at Bangor on Friday afternoon over an inadequate trip and on his first start of the season with a top class run. It was a very good performance under those circumstances and Teaforthree is now a best price of 4/1 for the Hunters Chase at the Festival which reflects his undoubted class.
Champion Jockey AP McCoy has announced that he will retire by the end of the season.
Carlingford Lough now a best price 12/1 for the Gold Cup after he won the Irish Hennessy on Sunday
Champion Chaser Sire De Grugy unseated on his first start this season with Mr Mole the clear Game Spirit winner