The turn of the New Year is now just around the corner and that can only mean one thing; the road to Cheltenham is really starting to hot up with the Festival just 13 weeks away. The past seven days has provided some cracking action with plenty of excellent horses producing the goods on both sides of the Irish Sea. As always at this time of the week, we have been running the rule over those horses who have made the biggest impression on the jumps scene with more than half an eye on the fast approaching Cheltenham Festival.
Sandown Park played host to its excellent two day Tingle Creek meeting over the weekend and as you would expect, there were some noteworthy performances at the Surrey track. The action started on Friday with the Future Stars Chase over three miles the highlight of the afternoon card. All eyes were on Charlie Hall Chase winner, Harry Topper, but the Kim Bailey horse flopped after a number of jumping mistakes ensured that he was unable to land a blow on the front two.
It was the outsider of the the three runner field, Vino Griego, who stormed clear of Rolling Aces to claim the win under a fantastic ride from Jamie Moore. Harry Topper drifted significantly in the Gold Cup betting as a result of his run with one firm pushing him out to 33/1 from 20/1 for the Festival show-piece.
The other notable performance at Sandown on Friday afternoon came from the classy Killala Quay who won the Winter Novices Hurdle over 2m4f. The Charlie Longsdon horse dispatched the likes of Beat That and Saint Roque a touch cosily and he looks like a novice to follow. The Neptune Novices Hurdle at Cheltenhamis likely to be the ultimate aim for Killala Quay and he was installed in that market at a best price of 25/1 following his victory.
The top class action continued at Sandown on Saturday afternoon with the Grade 1 Tingle Creek Chase the clear highlight of the day. The race received a blow after Sprinter Sacre was withdrawn but we still saw a highly competitive contest. There was a popular winner in the form of Sire De Grugy who scored a famous Grade 1 success for the Moore family as he stormed clear of the field to claim the win and a quote of 16/1 (from 25/1) for the Champion Chase in the process.
The seven-year-old remains highly progressive and he proved that to win pretty comfortably from the consistent Somersby. The Champion Chase is likely to be the aim for Sire De Grugy and he was slashed from 20/1 to 7/1 for that race after his Tingle Creek win, although there is still 16/1 available in places.
The other big winner at Sandown on Saturday was Hinterland who won the Racing Post Henry VIII Novices Chase over two miles. It was a top class renewal with Taquin du Seuil back in third place and Grandouet running well to finish a close up second to the winner. It was Hinterland though who jumped to the front and held on for the win from the fast finishing Grandouet who didn't lose too much in defeat
The Arkle Chase remains the likely aim for the first two across the line with Hinterland cut from 10/1 into 8/1 for the Cheltenham race after this Sandown win. Grandouet may have been beaten again but he was finishing fast and remains around the 10//1 mark for the Arkle after the race.
There was action over in Ireland on Saturday with Navan playing host to some very nice horses indeed. Willie Mullins has an unbelievably strong team at his yard this season and he scored twice at the County Meath track with a couple of excellent prospects. The Meath Novice Hurdle is always a good race and in Faugheen, we saw a hugley promising winner at a very short price for the Irish Champion Trainer.
Ruby Walsh was on-board Faugheen in the 2m4f contest and he duly won in facile fashion to record his second win of the season. The five-year-old will need to prove himself in graded company at some point but he was cut into 8/1 from 10/1 for the Neptune Investment Novices Hurdle after the race, although one firm is still offering 16/1.
Mullins and Walsh teamed up again with Felix Yonger claiming the EBF Novice Chase over 2m1f. Felix Yonger finished second in the Neptune last season behind Simonsig which is top class form but he looks to be even better over the fences. He quickened up to beat Trifolium by 15 lengths after a cracking round of jumping to produce one of the best novice chase performances of the season so far. Connections were quick to say that the horse will improve for further and with that in mind he was cut from 12/1 into 8/1 for the Jewson Novices Chase after his Navan success.
Predictably, there was more success for Willie Mullins on Sunday as last season's top Cheltenham trainer scored another big race success, this time at Punchestown. The John Durkan Chase over 2m4 suffered a blow following the withdrawal of Flemenstar, through injury, but we still had a decent three runner race to take in. In the end though we saw a comfortable win for Arvika Ligeonniere who was rarely troubled on the way to a nine length success.
His main market challenger was Sir Des Champs but he took a crashing fall at the third fence to make the outcome a mere formality. Arvika Ligeonniere had nothing to beat but he did it well and he looks to have two Cheltenham Festival options ahead of him. Ruby Walsh said after the race that the Champion Chase could suit the horse while this success came over 2m4, which does open the chance of a Ryanair run for the eight-year-old. Arvika is a best price 14/1 for the Ryanair after this win while punters wanting to back him ante-post for the Queen Mother, can currently get a general price of 16/1.