The festive period is always one of the most exciting and important few weeks of the season when it comes to National Hunt Racing and this winter has been no exception. There has been several top class races on both sides of the Irish Sea for punters to take in with plenty of the Cheltenham Festival markets shaken up as a result. We are now less than three months away from the Festival in March and we have once again picked out those horses who we believe have made the biggest impression over the Christmas and New Year period.
The highlight for many of the Festive period is the King George VI Chase at Kempton and we saw a cracking renewal of the race this season. The Nicky Henderson trained Long Run won the race for the second time in three years after a titanic battle with Captain Chris up the run in. The testing conditions played into the hands of Long Run whose stamina came to the fore despite making one or two jumping mistakes along the way. Despite the win the bookmakers were largely unmoved by the run with one or two firms shaving a point off his price with 7/1 now available about him winning the Gold Cup in March.
Elsewhere on the Kempton card on Boxing Day we saw a very taking performance from Darlan who pulled well clear of the field in the Christmas Hurdle. It was the first start of the season for the Nicky Henderson horse and despite very heavy ground he was far too good for a field which included the likes of Countrywide Flame and Cinders And Ashes. It was a very striking performance from Darlan and Paddy Power slashed his Champion Hurdle price into 4/1 from 10/1 as a result and he is now fighting for favouritism for the race.
We also saw two other Cheltenham Festival favourites enhance their star at Kempton over Christmas, with Simonsig and Dynaste both claiming comfortable wins. Simonsig won the Wayward Lad Novices Chase as he liked to see his price for the Arkle trimmed to even money from 2/1. While Dynaste won the Feltham Novices Chase on Boxing Day by nine lengths and his RSA Chase price is now as short as 5/2 having been 5/1 before the off.
One horse that did take our eye over the Festive period was the exciting Taquin Du Seuil. The Jonjo O'Neill horse won the Challow Novices Hurdle in very taking fashion to see him become a live contender for the Neptune Investment Novices Hurdle in March. Paddy Power cut his price for Cheltenham in half following his win at Newbury with Taquin De Seuil now an 8/1 shot for the Neptune which could be a great price for a horse on the upward curve this season.
There was just as much top class action over in Ireland over the Christmas period with the Leopardstown meeting once again the centrepiece attraction. The highlight was the Lexus Chase over three miles with Flemenstar, Sir Des Champs and Tidal Bay crossing swords in what looked set to be a top class Gold cup trial. It was Flemenstar who travelled like the best horse for most of the trip but after running fresh he tired on his first time over three miles to leave his cheltenham options open. Connections are inclined to try Flemenstar one more time over three miles while many are also saying that he has more than enough speed to run in the Champion Chase over two miles.
It was Tidal Bay who, under a stunning ride from Ruby Walsh, finished the race the best to claim a brilliant win in the Lexus Chase. It really was one of the best races in recent memory and Tidal Bay now looks like a live Gold Cup contender, although the World Hurdle is also a possibility for the Nicholls horse following the injury to Big Bucks. Betfred were impressed enough with Tidal Bay to slash his Gold Cup price into 9/1 from 20/1 while the same firm rate him as an 8/1 shot for the World Hurdle. Sir Des Champs made a number of jumping mistakes but he stayed on really well to finish a close up fourth to see his Gold cup price trimmed and he remains a live Gold Cup player for Willie Mullins.
Elsewhere at Leopardstown over Christmas we saw Hurricane Fly cruise to a win in the Istabraq Hurdle and he remains firmly on course for the Champion Hurdle in March. He of course won the Champion Hurdle in 2011 before finishing third in the race last season and following his Leopardstown win he is as short as 7/2 from 5/1 for the 2013 edition.
Jezki enhanced his burgeoning reputation with a striking win in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle for Jessica Harrington and he remains very much on course for the Supreme Novices Hurdle. Jezki dispatched Waaheb with the minimum of fuss to see his Festival price cut to 4/1 from 6/1 as he continued his upward curve this winter. Another Cheltenham contender from Ireland emerged at Leopardstown with Monksland winning the Christmas Hurdle to confirm his claims for the World Hurdle. The Noel Meade horse showed plenty of stamina to defeat Zaidpour in a cracking race andhe is now a general 8/1 shot for the Stayers Hurdle having been as a big as 16/1 prior to his most recent run.