The Christmas racing period is now just around the corner and with the Cheltenham Festival now just three months away, there is no denying that we are right in the thick of the national hunt season. The top class horses continue to make their way through the winter with connections dreaming of taking their horses to the four day Prestbury Park spectacular in the spring and we have been watching as closely as ever.
It has been another busy week on the road to Cheltenham as you would expect with plenty of exciting performances to scribble in our old black note book. The action has been coming thick and fast on both sides of the Irish Sea with some great cards at Sandown on Saturday and Punchestown on Sunday in particular and we have all the big performances form there and elsewhere right here as usual in our road to Cheltenham blog.
Weekend Eye Catchers UK
The big meeting in the UK on Saturday came at Sandown Park as they hosted the Tingle Creek Chase over two miles. Few races have produced as many Cheltenham festival winners as the Tingle Creek in recent years with the likes of Kauto Star, Sprinter Sacre, Moscow Flyer and Master Minded just some of the names on the legendary roll of honour.
It remains to be seen if this year's winner can live up to those lofty names but in Dodging Bullets we saw a nice horse who sets a strong standard. Paul Nicholls has farmed the Tingle Creek down the years with the likes of the aforementioned Master Minded and Kauto Star and the Champion trainer was clearly delighted to see Dodging Bullets claim the win on Saturday.
Under a good ride from Sam Twiston-Davies, Dodging Bullets travelled and jumped well before pulling clear of Somersby and the Nicholls horse was cut from 25/1 into 10/1 for the Queen Mother Champion Chase as a result. On the face of it Dodging Bullets doesn't look like a Champion Chaser but with fitness doubts still remaining over the top two, he could well be a lively outsider.
The other big race on the Sandown card on Saturday also went the way of Paul Nicholls as the Ditcheat handler saddled Vibrato Valtat to victory in the Henry VIII Novices Chase over two miles. It looked a very competitive little contest on the day with the five-year-old pulling clear of Dunraven Storm and he could well be an improver heading to the Arkle for which he is now a 16/1 from 33/1 shot for with Skybet.
Another Paul Nicholls winner we must mention from Saturday was the strong Sam Winner who won the Betfred Chase over 3m1f over at Aintree. The seven-year-old beat a nice horse in Medermit into second place while Gold cup fancy Holywell unseated his rider early on which was a disappointment. It was Sam Winner though who showed the stamina and the fight to win and he was cut in the betting for both the Gold Cup and the Grand National as a result of this nice showing.
Huntingdon played host to their biggest day of the season on Sunday afternoon with the Peterborough Chase run on a Sunday for the first time.The 2m4f contest often produces a classy winner and we saw Wishfull Thinking continue his Indian summer in a thrilling finish. The 11-year-old has been around for years but he is still in top gear as he followed up his Old Roan success with this one as he beat horses five years his junior in the form of Eduard and Wonderful Charm in a tight finish. Wishfull Thinking will be 12 when it comes to the spring which is a big ask but his form is rock solid and he was cut from 25/1 into 16/1 for the Ryanair Chase with Bet365 as a result of this run which could appeal to each-way punters.
Irish Weekend Eye Catchers
There were a couple of excellent cards over in Ireland on Sunday afternoon with both Cork and Punchestown the settings for some excellent sport yesterday. Cork was perhaps the support card but with Cheltenham in mind there were some very taking performances to scribble down.
Predictably it was Willie Mullins who dominated the action at Cork with a treble starting with Black Hercules in the Kerry Group Stayers Novice Hurdle over three miles. The Graham Wylie owned horse was an excellent bumper sort and he made it 2-2 over hurdles as he cantered to a nice Grade 3 success at Cork. Black Hercules will of course need to improve again to win something like the Albert Bartlett at the Festival but the bookies are clearly keen to stay on the right side of him as they trimmed his price for that Festival race from 10/1 into 8/1.
There was more success for Messrs Wylie and Mullins on the Cork card yesterday as Felix Yonger returned to something like his best to win the Grade 2 Kerry group Hilly Way Chase over 2m. The eight-year-old got up in the shadow of the post to claim his first win for almost a year and he is a 33/1 shot for the Queen Mother Champion Chase which looks about fair at the moment.
There appears to be a plethora of classy mares in training these days and in the form of Vroum Vroum Mag, Willie Mullins appears to have another one on his hands this season. The 5-year-old won her second start over fences since arriving from France and she looked very nice indeed as she won the EBF Mares Novices Chase over 2m1f and although she needs to prove herself against the boys, she remains a hot prospect and could well end up being a Festival horse in the spring.
The feature race over in Ireland on Sunday was however at Punchestown as the Grade 1 John Durkan Chase took centre stage. This race always produces a good winner and that looked the case again as the improving Don Cossack pulled clear of the field to claim an excellent victory. The penny appears to have dropped for this horse now and he was cut from 10/1 into 7/1 for the Ryanair Chase as a result, while punters can back him at a best price of 20/1 for the Gold Cup at the moment which might be value.
In behind him were the Punchestown Gold Cup winner and the Cheltenham Gold cup winner and both Boston Bob and Lord Windermere ran with credit over an inadequate trip. Lord Windermere in particular finished well and was trimmed from 16/1 into 12/1 for the Gold Cup as a result with the Lexus his next target over Christmas.
There was another important winner for Gordon Elliott at Punchestown on Sunday as he saddled Mala Beach to victory in the 2m6f Beginners Chase. The six-year-old simply smashed the field to pieces in a very impressive round of jumping and he looks like a strong stayer to follow this season. Elliott nominated the four miler at the Festival after the race as his main target and he is a best price of 10/1 for that contest at the moment which has to make plenty of appeal.
Midweek Eye Catchers
Outside of the weekend action there were plenty of other eye catchers in mid week to take note of on the road to Cheltenham. Paul Nicholls was firing in the winners as always with the Master of Ditcheat saddling Saphir Du Rheu to success last Friday.
Saphir Du Rheu is the apple of Nicholls' eye and he won his first chase of the season at Exeter last Friday to mark himself out as one to watch. The five-year-old won the decent Harry Dufield Memorial Novices Chase over 2m3f in good fashion and he was cut from 16/1 into 12 with Ladbrokes for the RSA Chase in March as a result of this win.
The Tingle Creek card at Sandown was a two day affair and the first day on Friday also produced some very good racing indeed. The race of particular note was the Neptune contest over 2m4f and we saw three very good horses fight out the finish and all three could have big futures ahead of them. Tara Point ran enthusiastically in front before finishing third for Paul Nicholls while Vyta Du Roc and Shantou Bob fought out a thrilling finale.
In the end it was Vyta Du Roc who claimed the narrowest of wins for Nicky Henderson and he was cut from 25/1 into 16/1 for the Neptune at Cheltenham, while Shantou Bob also looks top class and should be followed very closely through the winter.
Dodging Bullets wins the Tingle Creek and is now a best price of 14/1 for the Champion Chase with Bet Victor
Don Cossack is cut for the Ryanair Chase and the Gold Cup after his impressive John Durkan win at Punchestown.
Willie Mullins picks up a treble at Cork with Black Hercules, Felix Yonger and Vroum Vroum Mag all winning and enhancing their Festival claims.
Gold Cup winner Lord Windermere runs a good race on his seasonal debut for Jim Culloty and he will now be aimed at the Lexus Chase