Punters can almost smell the Cheltenham Festival now but there were still one or two clues to take note of over the weekend. There was a cracking card at Ascot on Saturday and with it came some impressive performances to take into account before ahead of the meeting which is just three weeks away. As is customary on a Monday, we take a look at the Festival markets to pick out the key movers and shakers from the last seven days.
At Ascot on Saturday, the Ascot Chase took centre stage, in what traditionally is a key trial for Ryanair Chase at the Festival and that could be the case once again this season with Cue Card winning in good style. The horse bowled along in front with his ears pricked to claim the win, he was cut from 5/1 into 3/1 favourite for the Ryanair as he returned to form after failing to stay in the King George last time out.
We must also mention Captain Chris who finished second in the Ascot Chase after he made a shuddering mistake at the second last when going well. Richard Johnson had just brought the horse alongside Cue Card when he was brought to a standstill but he remains very much on course for a tilt at the Gold Cup for which he is best priced 25/1. Meanwhile, Finains Rainbow ran another stinker on ground softer than he would like and punters who have backed him ante post for the Ryanair or Champion Chase will be losing faith quickly.
Elsewhere on the Ascot card, we saw a good win by Rocky Creek who enhanced his Festival claims in the Reynoldstown Novices Chase. The seven year old looks to be a good stayer for Paul Nicholls and he is now as short as 10/1 from 14/1 for the RSA Chase at the Festival. He will need to improve again to feature at Cheltenham but he is a solid horse who looks to have been improving gradually this Winter.
There was more success for Paul Nicholls on the same card with Far West continuing his unbeaten run in the Ironspine Novices Hurdle. The juvenile showed a good turn of foot after the race was run at a dawdle and although we didn't learn too much, he looks a classy looking horse who is on track for the JCB Triumph Hurdle (5/1) next month.
At Wincanton, there was more even success for Paul Nicholls as Zarkandar won the Kingwell Hurdle in decent style. He pulled clear of the returning Khyber Kim in testing conditions to remain on course for the Champion Hurdle for which he is now a 5/1 shot having started the weekend at 6/1. It is fair to say that Zarkanadar didn't beat much on Saturday but he did it well and goes to the Festival as a former Triumph Hurdle winner with good claims.
Some other clues to have emerged from the weekend include Red Sherlock, who won the Bumper at Ascot in workmanlike fashion on Saturday afternoon. Trainer David Pipe was quick to say that the Champion Bumper at Cheltenhamis by no means a certain route for the horse but punters wanting to back him anyway can get 10/1.
One other horse we should mention is Utopie Des Bordes who won her second race in quick succession at sandown on Friday for trainer Nicky Henderson. The mare looks to be another classy French import to Seven Barrows and she looks to be on target for the Albert Bartlett (14/1) at the Festival while the Mares Hurdle (14/1) also remains an option at this stage.