The weather may have been dire around the UK and Ireland over the past couple of weeks but racing fans must doff their caps to the fantastic efforts of ground staff at Newbury and Leopardstown, who ensured there was still a full weekend of action to enjoy, providing plenty of Cheltenham clues in the process with the Festival now just over a month away.
The ground may have been testing at both Newbury on Saturday and then at Leopardstown on Sunday but there were still great Festival insight to be gleaned along the way. As always on a Monday morning, we have been running the rule of the best weekend action with the aim of picking out some of those all-important Cheltenham Festival ante-post market movers and eye-catchers.
Newbury on Saturday
The focus in the UK on Saturday was firmly on Newbury as the Berkshire track played host to its now famous 'Super Saturday' fixture. The officials at the track did a great job to get the meeting on given the weather conditions, but thankfully we enjoyed an excellent card after they passed an early morning inspection. Paul Nicholls ended up enduring a mixed day but it started well for him as Calipto scored in impressive fashion to win the the Cash Out Your Saturday Multiples with Betfair Novices Hurdle. The juvenile showed an impressive turn of foot in heavy ground to pull clear of Little Jon and his Festival chances were boosted in the process.
Calipto is expected to run in the JCB Triumph Hurdle next month and on this form he has to be a live contender. It was his second win this season and Calipto was cut into 7/1 from 12/1 with one firm for the Triumph, which looks a fair enough price.
There was slight disappointment for Nicholls in the Denman Chase on the same card as hot favourite Al Ferof could only finish a distant second place behind Harry Topper. The Kim Bailey trained in-mate loved the testing conditions as he pulled well clear of Al Ferof to enhance his claims for the Gold Cup. Bailey was quick to say after the race that Harry Topper will only head to the Festival if the ground comes up soft, but nevertheless he was cut from 50/1 into 20/1 for the Gold Cup after this success.
As for Al Ferof, he travelled ok but didn't get home in the testing ground and the grey now looks very doubtful for the Gold Cup. The Ryanair Chase is now his likely aim at Cheltenham and he is a best price of 8/1 for that race which is likely to appeal to some punters.
Over the years, the Game Spirit Chase has proven to be a cracking trial with Cheltenham in mind and once again, the two mile contest was an exciting one. Some excellent horses have won this race in recent years (including Master Minded, Sprinter Sacre, Well Chief and Azertyuiop) and this year it was Module who showed the stamina required to hold off Dodging Bullets in a thrilling finish. Module had the stamina and experience on the day and he was cut from 16/1 into 12/1 for the Ryanair Chase as a result of this success.
Dodging Bullets came unstuck here but he lost little in defeat and as a novice chaser, it was a solid run from the Paul Nicholls in-mate. He looks on target for the Arkle Chase at the Festival and he remains a general 6/1 chance for that race with most on-line firms.
The three mile novices chase on the card looked a cracker on paper and that's how it panned out at Newbury as we saw some genuine RSA Chase contenders clash. In the end it was the excellent Smad Place who claimed an impressive victory for Alan King. The grey has been placed in two World Hurdles and he proved his class here to hold off the game Sam Winner with a good round of jumping.
Pre-race favourite Mendip Express was never involved and was a big disappointment but he might be given another chance if he turns up at the Festival. It was hugely impressive from Smad Place though and he was cut from 10/1 into 7/1 for the RSA Chase after this success, while Sam Winner is a best price 16/1 after his second place here.
There was something of a shock in the Betfair Hurdle as Splash Of Ginge won for Nigel Twiston-Davies at 33/1. He held off the well backed trio of Dell'Arca, Irish Saint and Cheltenian who all ran well but were unable to to catch the leader. It was a highly competitive renewal and three of the first four are likely to be heading to the County Hurdle next month. Dell'Arca is as short as 10/1 for that race while Irish Saint is 14/1 and Splash of Ginge can be backed at an appealing 20/1.
Warwick on Saturday
Whilst the main action in the UK was at Newbury, there was also some very interesting performances to take note of at Wawrick on Saturday. Alan King was the trainer to follow once again as Balder Success secured an excellent victory in the Kingmaker Novices Chase. The two mile contest is Grade 2 affair and we saw a fine performance from Balder Success who jumped and travelled really well. He holds an entry to the Arkle next month and on this evidence deserves to take his chance, especially given the fact that he is available at a nice looking 20/1 from 33/1 for the race.
Willie Mullins has sent over Glens Melody to England on a number of occasions this season and it was another successful foray at Wawrick this weekend. The mare won the OLBG Mares Hurdle with a tough show of stamina and he is available at a best price of 16/1 for the David Nicholson race next month.
Leopardstown on Sunday
The Leopardstown card in Ireland on Sunday was one of the very best of the season with no less than four Grade 1 races to enjoy. The first race of the day was the Gala Retail Spring Juvenile Hurdle and it saw a number of potential Triumph Hurdle contenders lock horns. Dessie Hughes won this race 12 months ago with Our Conor and he did so again as Guitar Pete won the race a touch cosily in the end.
Barry Geraghty was on-board the horse for this race and only Tiger Roll was able to offer any sort of challenge to the eventual winner. The well fancied Plinth jumped terribly the whole way round but stayed on for third, while odds-on favourite Ivan Grozny was never involved and could only manage fourth. The juvenile division is wide open this season and Guitar Pete looks as good as any after this race and with that in mind, he was cut from 20/1 into 10/1 for the Triumph Hurdle as a result.
The second Grade 1 race of the day at Leopardstown was the Deloitte Novice Hurdle over two miles and two furlongs. Ruby Walsh was allowed to dictate the pace on Vautour and that proved the key move as the Willie Mullins horse secured an excellent victory. The Tullow Tank had started the race as the favourite and although he picked up well, the six-year-old was unable to catch the front running winner.
Vautour is clearly highly thought of and he is bang on track for the Supreme Novices Hurdle, for which he can be backed at 5/1 for from 9/1 as a result of this success. The Tullow Tank may want slightly further at the festival and he is a best price of 11/1 for the Neptune next month which could prove a nice piece of each-way value.
There was more success for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh in the Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase as Ballycasey realised his undoubted potential. It may have only been a three-runner affair but it was highly competitive with all three likely to head to the RSA Chase next month. Once again, it was a masterful ride from Walsh who rode the race from the front and despite being challenged by Don Cossack and Carlingford Lough, he pulled clear in the end to produce a career best performance.
Carlingford Lough was hampered by Don Cossack at the final fence and unseated AP McCoy which was a disappointed and he might be given another chance. Ballycasey jumped well though and stayed on strongly in testing conditions to put him right in the frame for Cheltenham. The Willie Mullins inmate was cut from 8/1 into 5/1 with most firms for the RSA Chase, while Carlingford Lough could interest some at 10/1.
Those races were mere appetisers though with the Irish Hennessy Gold Cup the feature of the day at the Dublin track. The race is of course prestigious in its own right as well as being a key Gold Cup trial for Cheltenham in March. We saw a stunning performance from Last Instalment who dictated the pace of the race before pulling well clear of a decent field to claim a memorable victory. Brian O'Connell gave the nine-year-old a peach of a ride on the front with the Gigginstown horse galloping his rivals into the ground with a strong pace.
Last Instalment had been highly thought of as a novice chaser but after a long lay-off with an injury, he looks to have returned better than ever. It now appears as though it is all systems go for the Gold Cup and Last Instalment was slashed from 40/1 into 7/1 for the race after this stunning success. Tidal Bay stayed on well to finish a distant second and he will now go straight to the the Grand National at the age of 13. First Lieutenant had started favourite but he couldn't land a blow back in third with his Gold Cup price drifting out to around 14/1 as a result.
It is worth noting that both First Lieutenant and Last Instalment are also in the betting for the Ryanair Chase and it would be no surprise if they were kept apart, given that they are both owned by Michael O'Leary. First Lieutenant was second in the Ryanair 11 months ago and is available at 8/1 for that race, while Last Instalment is as big as 20/1, should connections swerve the Gold cup.