Only halfway through November and already, National Hunt fans have witnessed a number of eye catching performances in races on both sides of the Irish Sea. These performances, which have all taken place over the past couple of weeks, are the first indicators of potential winners at the Cheltenham Festival in March, forcing bookmakers in to taking evasive action against quick responding punters who are hunting for antepost value.
Kauto Stone (Paul Nicholls)
Before anyone gets too carried away with Kauto Stone's win in the Grade One, JNWine Chase at Down Royal recently, it should be remembered that the Paul Nicholls runner's half brother, Kauto Star, won this race in 2010 before failing to win another race that season. However, the recently retired two times Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, did land this race in 2008 en route to Cheltenham glory and as such, many Nation Hunt fans will be hoping that it is a case of "exit Kauto Star" and "enter Kauto Stone" for the six year old who is setting out on his second season chasing in Britain after arriving from at Ditcheat from France 18 months ago.
A win in a Grade Two Chase at the same Down Royal meeting was his only success in five starts last season, which culminated in him falling in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and tailed off in the Melling Chase at Aintree on his final start.
However, he appeared to be much bigger and stronger when seen on his seasonal debut and showed with far more zest in his jumping and seemed to get the longer trip with ease.
In winning the JNWine Chase, Kauto Stone defeated a whole crop of top rated Irish rivals, including the likes of Cheltenham Festival winner, First Lieutenant, last year's winner, Quito de la Roque and former Irish Hennessy winner, Joncol.
His performance was deemed good enough to earn him an entry into the King George Champion Chase for which he is now generally a 12/1 shot and an entry which suggests his seasonal target will be the Cheltenham Gold Cup, for which he was installed a 25/1 shot. However, if he fails to make an impact against the elite runners in this division at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, it would be no surprise to see him line up in the Ryanair Chase at the Festival, for which, he's currently rated a 20/1 chance.
Flemenstar (Peter Casey)
Beaten just once over fences in seven starts (and that was second on his chasing debut a year ago), the Peter Casey’s trained Flemenstar picked up where he left off last season by winning the Grade Two, Fortria Chase at Navan last weekend.
He capped off his Novice campaign in style, landing the Grade One Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse over 2½ miles by over 11 lengths back in April but stepping up to take on more experienced rivals left the seven year old with questions to answer ahead of his seasonal debut but answer them he and in a most emphatic manner, beating the 2010 Champion Chaser winner and six times Grade One winner, Big Zeb, by seven lengths.
What is more exciting is that Peter Casey was adamant that his runner was nowhere near 100% at the weekend, stating that Flemenstar should improve for the run when next seen in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown in December. A win in that race will see him attempt three miles in the Lexus Chase, a trip Casey confirmed that he is confident he'll stay.
As such, if he does stay three miles, the ultimate target will be the Cheltenham Gold Cup for which he was cut from 10/1 to 8/1 following Sunday's win.
Overturn (Donald McCain)
Whenever this horse’s name appears on any race card, punters immediately know that by backing him, they will, if nothing else, get a tremendous run for their money and more often than not, a return on their investment!
It seems that this inmate at the Donald McCain stable has been around forever given his versatility and bold campaigning from connections. In his dual Flat/Hurdling career, he has won nearly £700,000, which included prize money from flat races such as the Northumberland Plate and the Chester Cup. While over hurdles, he has won the Scottish Champion Hurdle, the Galway Hurdle, the Coral Hurdle and the Fighting Fifth Hurdle. Arguably his best performance to date however was his second place in last season’s Champion Hurdle.
Now at the age of eight, McCain has decided to try the most versatile National Hunt horse in training over fences, sending him over bigger obstacles for the first time last weekend in a modest Beginners Chase at Sandown. Needless to say, the win that followed was more than expected despite going off the 30/100 odds-on favourite, winning in facile such fashion with 14 lengths between him and the Nicky Henderson trained, Thanks For Coming, in second.
He went for home with Jason Maguire on board three fences out and jumped as though he had been doing it all his career. He was slick, speedy and showed true class from start to finish. McCain quite understandably was highly excited after the race and although yet to confirm his season’s targets, a tilt at the Arkle Trophy at the Festival looks very much on the cards. On this form and in anticipation of a follow up success, bookmakers have cut his odds from 12/1 to 7/1 in recent days and sits only behind the highly regarded Simonsig, who has yet to been seen over fences.
Zarkandar (Paul Nicholls)
Not only has the 2011 Triumph Hurdle winner shown great class in a developing career, he has also shown great fight and desire, traits that provide answers to why he has won five of his seven starts over hurdles thus far.
Zarkandar's only two defeats over hurdles came in the Champion Hurdle last season, where he finished fifth behind his less fancied stablemate, Rock On Ruby, but he was going the strongest of all at the end and given an extra furlong, would have undoubtedly won the race and he also suffered defeat in the Aintree Hurdle at the Grand National meeting when he fell when close up at the sixth fence.
His 2012/2013 campaign got underway last weekend in the Grade Two, Elite Hurdle at Wincanton, where he returned to winning ways over two miles and had the burden of shouldering top weight in the process.
In victory, he defeated another Ditcheat stablemate and favoruite for the race, the highly talented Prospect Wells by a neck after giving him 17lb.
Prospect Wells is thought to harbour Grade One ability by the stable and if that is the case, then that only adds further substance to Zarkandar’s performance and if he has improved between last season and this, he has to be considered a threat to all on comers for the 2013 Champion Hurdle, for which the 12/1 was soon snapped up after the Wincanton win and the half brother to 2008 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner, Zarkava and son of multiple Group One winner, Azamour, is now a best price 8/1 to land the first Championship race of the 2013 Festival on Tuesday, 12th March.