It has been another spectacular week on the Road to the Cheltenham Festival with the star names coming out to play on both sides of the Irish Sea. The pressure is really beginning to crank up a notch on trainers, jockeys and punters alike and that continued over the weekend as we saw two meetings of the very highest order take place at Cheltenham on Saturday and then at Leopardstown on Sunday.
As always on a Monday, we are taking a closer look at all of the performances of note from the past seven days as well as the key ante-post market movers for the Festival. There has been no shortage of either this week with some truly spectacular scenes and as many of them as possible are featured right here as we continue our bid to find as many Cheltenham winners as possible.
Cheltenham Trials Day Eye Catchers
Trials Day at Cheltenham is always a key marker point on the way to the Festival and as always thousands of punters poured into Prestbury Park on Saturday for one of the best fixtures of the season. The first race on the Trials Day card was the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial and we certainly saw an exciting performance from a juvenile who has already built a stellar reputation.
The Nicky Henderson trained Peace And Co started the trial as the warm favourite after he dotted up on debut at Doncaster and he duly justified those odds with a very pleasing display. He looked a little green in the early stages as they went a crawl but he travelled into the final stages well before pulling three lengths clear of the rock solid Karazak who was no match for the winner. Peace And Co clearly has much more to come and with that in mind, Paddy Power cut him from 5/2 into 2/1 for the Triumph Hurdle as a result of this nice display.
The big chase on the Trials day card was the Betbright Cup which has grown into a decent Gold Cup trial in recent years and we saw a genuine contender emerge. Many Clouds was the brilliant winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup last November but he looked even better this time as he held off all comers on the run in to prove his stamina, while his jumping was rock solid the whole way round. Smad Place and Dynaste both ran well but were unable to land a blow on Many Clouds who was cut from 16/1 into 8/1 for the Cheltenham Gold Cup by Bet365 after the race.
Dynaste ran really well but was unable to get on terms with the winner with most now believing that the grey will be back to defend his Ryanair crown in March. The Gold Cup had been a real consideration but that now looks unlikely with 5/1 the best price about him winning the Ryanair again.
The Neptune race on the card always seems to produce a good winner or two and it will be interesting to see what happens to the first couple this season. There was a slightly surprise win for the Alan King trained Orda Ab Chao who was clearly happy with the good gallop as he finished strongly to beat Value At Risk. Orda Ab Chao was slashed for the Neptune in March from 50/1 into 14/1 with one firm which looks fair, while Value At Risk looks like a ready made Albert Bartlett contender and can be backed at a best price of 14/1 with Betfred for that one.
The Cleeve Hurdle has been one of the very best World Hurdle trials down the years and as such all eyes were on the six runners as they went down to post on Saturday. In the end we saw a very nice performance from Saphir Du Rheu who was back over hurdles for Paul Nicholls and Andy Stewart and he looked very good as he held off the rock solid Reve De Sivola and the classy Un Temps Pout Tout on the run in.
Reve De Sivola is always a difficult horse to get by but Saphir Du Rheu managed it up the hill and although connections see this horse as a real chaser in the making, he is now a best price of 7/1 with Hills for the World Hurdle. That looks a fair price for an improver while Un Temps Pour Tout didn't lose too much in defeat on his first start of the season and 16/1 about him winning the World Hurdle looks about fair.
Eye Catchers from Leopardstown on Sunday
The atmosphere at Leopardstown on Sunday was sizzling as they hosted one of their biggest fixtures of the campaign and it didn't disappoint. There were two Grade 1 contests on the card with the first of them being the Irish Arkle Chase which may have only had three runners but it was still a renewal of the highest quality. The three of them were considered the best novice chasers in Ireland over two miles before the off but there was only one winner as Un De Sceaux simply destroyed two classy opponents.
Under a good ride from Ruby Walsh, Un De Sceaux jumped and travelled with style and enthusiasm from the front with the other horses simply blown away. It was a remarkable run given the quality of Gilgamboa and Clarcam who were a way behind with the Willie Mullins trained winner looking like something very special indeed. Unsurprisingly Un De Sceaux was slashed for the Arkle after the race with Skybet cutting him from 2/1 into 10/11 favourite for the Festival contest.
The other Grade 1 contest on the Leopardstown card was of course the Irish Champion Hurdle and history was made as the legendary Hurricane Fly won the race for a stunning fifth time. The 11-year-old continues to wow racing fans with his performances and he once again got the better of Jezki as the pair of them continued their season long tussle.
Hurricane Fly looked in trouble a long way out but he showed all of his battling qualities to draw past Jezki coming to the last and the race was put to bed when Jezki made a bad mistake at the final hurdle, That was a shame but Hurricane Fly was already on top by that stage and the 11-year-old was rightly roared back into the winners enclosure once again at his favourite track. Most believed that Hurricane Fly was finished at the start of the season but he now looks on track for another tilt at the Champion Hurdle with Bet365 cutting him into 7/1 from 11/1 for that race as a result of this performance.
The two Grade 1 races rightly caught most of the attention for Willie Mullins but the Irish Champion Trainer had another winner of note on the Leopardstown card. Outlander won the 2m4f Grade 2 Novice Hurdle by some distance as he stretched clear of some decent horses and he looks like another classy Mullins Festival contender.
No More Heroes was the talking horse before the race but he fell away tamely to finish down the field with Outlander well clear of the field. Outlander was slashed from 25/1 into 8/1 for the Neptune in March while No More Heroes has doubled in price for the Albert Bartlett from 5/1 out to 10/1 after his limp effort.
Other Festival Eye Catchers This Week
There were also some cracking performances outside of the two main weekend meetings across the UK and Ireland this past week and a number of them deserve a mention with the Festival in mind.
Doncaster held their Skybet Chase day on Saturday and we saw a very nice winner in the form of the Philip Hobbs trained If In Doubt. He jumped terribly through the early stages of the race and looked way out of it but under a cracking ride from AP McCoy, he stayed on well before pulling well clear of the field to win the Skybet Chase. This is a young progressive horse who is clearly ahead of the handicapper at the moment and provided he sorts his jumping out and fast, he is sure to be a contender in one of the handicaps come March.
The Grade 2 Lightning Novices Chase over 2m was an absolute thriller up at Doncaster as Three Kingdoms came from the clouds to just chin Solar Impulse on the line. It was a stunning ride from AP McCoy once again and although the horse will need more again, he looks a decent sort who could turn up in the Arkle (33/1) or the JLT Novices Chase (33/1) at the Cheltenham Festival.
We must also mention the win of Caracci Apache at Doncaster on Saturday with the Nicky Henderson horse scoring in good fashion in the Albert Bartlett race. He got up on the line to beat warm favourite Blaklion to maintain his unbeaten record over hurdles and he could still have plenty more to come. The front two both look like live Albert Bartlett contenders for March with Caracci Apache cut into 14/1 from 20's and Blaklion out to 14s from 10s for the same contest.
Finally this week we must make a note of the action from Gowran Park as they hosted one of their biggest fixtures of the season last Thursday. The feature race was the Thyestes Chase which has produce some very good winners in the past and we saw another one for Willie Mullins. Off of top weight, it was Djakadam who was super impressive under Ruby Walsh in the fog and he now looks like a real Gold Cup horse, especially given his young age with maybe more to come from him. He disappointed in the Hennessy when well backed but he showed his true colours here to win a competitive race and his Gold Cup price is now as short as 14/1, from 40/1, with Bet365.
We saw a thrilling finish to the Galmoy Hurdle on the same card at Gowran Park as Dedigout just held off Monksland in a cracking race. The pair of them went to battle over the final fence with Dedigout just getting on top in the end with the World Hurdle likely to be on both horses agenda. Dedigout clearly enjoyed the testing ground on this occasion and was cut from 50/1 into 20/1 for the World Hurdle, while Monksland is a best price of 20/1 for the Stayers hurdle at the Festival with better ground expected to suit him in March.
History is made at Leopardstown as Hurricane Fly wins the Irish Champion Hurdle for a fifth time
Un De Sceaux a best price of 10/11 with Sky Bet for the Arkle Chase in March after he demolished rivals in the Irish Arkle
Hennessy winner Many Clouds cut for the Gold Cup after Betbright Cup success on trials Day
Peace And Co consolidates Triumph Hurdle favouritism after impressive trial win at Cheltenham on Saturday