There is no busier time for National Hunt racing than the Festive period and once again the big races and the star names came thick and fast as racing fans enjoyed a feast of sport. The Cheltenham Festival is now just over nine weeks away and there were clues coming left right and centre over Christmas and the New Year with some of the big Championship races in March starting to become a little clearer, while others are perhaps looking as tricky as ever, from a punting point of view at least.
We have of course been keeping our beady eye on all of the sport over the past couple of weeks for our latest Road to Cheltenham blog and all of the important Festival market movers for the big races are right here in one place. We have picked out as many of the big market movers for Cheltenham from the festive period as possible as we continue our build up to the greatest four days on turf!
Gold Cup Christmas Eye Catchers
There is only one place to start our round-up of the Christmas action and that is at Kempton on Boxing Day as Silviniaco Conti produced a stunning round of jumping to win the King George VI Chase for the second successive year. The Paul Nicholls trained horse was given a peach of a ride by Noel Fehily from the front with the field hardly able to land a blow on the Gold Cup 4th.
It was visually an excellent performance from Silviniaco Conti who pulled clear of some excellent horses and his Gold Cup price has been slashed from 8/1 into 3/1 by Paddy Power in the days since that result. He will almost certainly start the race as the favourite in March with good horses like Champagne Fever, Dynaste and Al Ferof all in behind and all unlikely to run in the Gold Cup.
The big Gold Cup trial over in Ireland during the Festive period was of course the Lexus Chase and it proved to be a very interesting renewal. The last two winners of the Gold Cup were both in the field but neither Bobs Worth or Lord Windermere were unable to land a blow. Bobs Worth was the first beaten on seasonal debut and his Festival claims are clearly up in the air with his Cheltenham Gold Cup price now as big as 16/1 as a result of this very poor run with the softish ground perhaps his only excuse.
Lord Windermere kept on at the one pace despite never looking like a contender although connections are clearly working towards one day in March for the defending champ. He was no match for Road To Riches though who pulled clear of On His Own to win the Grade 1 race for Noel Meade. It was a cracking ride from Bryan Cooper as the horse followed up on his Down Royal Champion chase win and although he will need much more to beat the likes of Silviniaco Conti, the bookmakers reacted by cutting him from 20/1 into 8/1 second favourite for the Gold Cup which looks short enough on this bare form.
Champion Hurdle Christmas Eye Catchers
Willie Mullins decided to send Faugheen over to Kempton from Ireland on Boxing Day and the Champion Hurdle fancy did not disappoint. The Neptune hero from 2014 simply cruised to victory in the Christmas Hurdle to continue his unbeaten career and plenty are predicting he will taste more glory in March. Faugheen was never off the bridle at Kempton as he pulled clear of some good horses and his Champion Hurdle price was slashed from 2/1 into 5/4 as a result of this very taking success.
Willie Mullins was clearly delighted with the run from Faugheen but the Irish handler still has Hurricane Fly in his yard and the old horse remains top class. The two time Champion Hurdler won the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown over the Festive period as he once again held off Jezki in a thrilling finish. Bet365 were impressed enough to cut Hurricane Fly from 16/1 into 10/1 for the Champion Hurdle, while Jezki remains a major threat for March with the current champ improving with every run.
Christmas Novice Hurdle Eye Catchers
We enjoyed a plethora of top performances over Christmas from novice hurdlers with the three races at Cheltenham looking as strong as ever at this stage. One that did perform well on Boxing Day at Kempton was the Harry Fry trained Jollyallan who made it 3-3 in the 2m novice hurdle. His jumping looks a little suspect but there is an engine there and Skybet cut him 28/1 into 16/1 for the Supreme Novices Hurdle after the race which looks about fair at this stage.
Over in Ireland on the same day we saw yet another novice hurdler from the Willie Mullins yard emerge with Alvisio Ville winning in emphatic fashion on debut at Leopardstown. The 4-year-old is a big strong horse and although he looks one for fences, he won this well and with the vibes from the yard positive, he is a best price 5/1 for the Supreme which reflects his reputation rather than his form at the moment.
Nicky Henderson has been having only an Ok season so far but he looks to have a top class horse on his hands in the form of the classy L'Ami Serge, The 5-year-old produced a stunning display to win the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown on the 3rd of January to jump straight to the head of the Supreme ante-post market. He travelled and jumped well before pulling clear of some decent horses and provided he goes on faster ground, L'Ami Serge could be one to watch at 5/1, from 12/1, for the Festival opener in March.
Newbury played host to the Challow Hurdle just after Christmas and we saw a very nice performance from the classy Parlour Games for John Ferguson. The former flat horse followed up his win from Cheltenham with an even better run as he quickened in very taking fashion after the last to beat the highly rated Vyta Du Roc and Blaklion a touch cosily. The former flat horse should have no problem with better ground in March and he looks a more than fair price at 12/1 (from 16s) for the Neptune following this latest win.
Christmas Novice Chase Eye Catchers
The Arkle Chase is shaping up to be a classic this season and over in Ireland in particular we saw some interesting performances over Christmas, with this race firmly in mind. The big shock of the entire festive period came at Leopardstown on Boxing Day as odds on favourite Vautour had his colours lowered in the Racing Post Novice Chase over 2m1f. On testing ground, Vautour made a shuddering mistake down the back straight which he was unable to recover from and in the end we saw a very nice run from the classy Clarcam who took the win.
Vautour did dispatch Clarcam earlier in the season but after his mistake, he never looked comfortable and although he should be given another chance given his class, this does cast one or two doubts over him heading into the spring. Vautour has drifted out to 8/1 from 7/2 for the Arkle as a result, while Clarcam is rock solid and can be backed at a best price of 10/1 for the same race at the time of writing.
On the same day over at Limerick we saw a stunning run from Gilgamboa who made it 2-2 over fences as he won the Grade 2 Shannon Airport Novices Chase over 2m3f on testing ground. He destroyed the field to win by 24 lengths with his jumping very taking indeed and a best price of 12/1 for the Arkle in March now looks very nice value indeed nine weeks out from the Festival.
Paul Nicholls was banging in the winners as usual over Christmas and the Champion Trainer tested more success at Cheltenham on New Year's Day as Ptit Zig continued his perfect start to his career over fences.The 6-year-old made it 4-4 this season with a six length beating of the very good Champagne West to win the Dipper Novices Chase and Ptit Zig could still be anything over fences at this stage. The JLT Novices Chase looks likely the most likely aim for a strong stayer with Paddy Power impressed enough with him to cut him from 8/1 into 9/2 favourite for that very contest.
The RSA Chase is also looking like a hot renewal at this stage with Coneygree an interesting potential runner there following his win in the Feltham on Boxing Day. The Mark Bradstock horse jumped and travelled strongly for Nico De Boinville and although his market leaders all crashed out, Coneygree could hardly have done it better and his RSA Chase price was slashed from 25/1 into 12/1 in the hours after this success.
One potential opponent for Coneygree in the RSA Chase could well be Don Poli who showed off his stamina in the Topaz Novice Chase at Leopardstown. The Grade 1 contest was run on very testing ground but Don Poli easily beat some very good horses for Willie Mullins and although he does have the four miler as a possible, the RSA Chase remains a possible target for the Martin Pipe Hurdle winner from last season with his price for that race tumbling in recent days to 5/1 from 10/1 with Bet365.
Christmas Juvenile Hurdle Eye Catchers
The Triumph Hurdle is shaping up to be a belter this season and we saw some very nice performances from the young hurdlers over the festive period. The Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Bristol De Mai won the Grade 1 Future Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chesptow on Welsh National day and he could be anything. Making his British debut, the horse travelled very strongly before pulling clear of the rock solid Karezak and he is now a best price 8/1 for the Triumph Hurdle which is hard to argue with.
The day before over in Ireland we saw Kalkir start as a hot favourite for the Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle on soft ground but the Willie Mullins horse was upset by an unknown horse making his hurdling debut. Fiscal Focus won the race as a 33/1 shot from the highly touted Kalkir and is now a best price 16/1 for the Triumph, while Kalkir has doubled in price from 5/1 to 10/1 for the same race after this shock defeat and his next run will be very interesting.
One other juvenile we should mention from the Christmas period is the interesting Bivouac who is 2-2 now this winter. The Nicky Henderson trained horse won the juvenile hurdle at Kempton on the 27th December with a brave performance and quotes of 20/1 from 33/1 for the Triumph Hurdle look fair for a big horse who should have plenty more improvement to come.
Other Christmas Eye Catchers
We saw a Cheltenham Festival favourite back to his best on New Year's Day as Rock On Ruby powered to victory to win the Engineering Hurdle over 2m4f at Prestbury Park. The former Champion Hurdler was giving weight away to Vaniteux but he travelled with all of his enthusiasm and power before pulling away and although he is now ten, Rock On Ruby was trimmed a couple of points into 14/1 by Ladbrokes for the World Hurdle which is likely to attract some money.
One potential opponent for Rock On Ruby in the World Hurdle could be Lieutenant Colonel who has been in cracking form over in Ireland this season. The 6-year-old won the Christmas Hurdle over 3m at Leopardstown on the 28th December in a battling display and he is in now on target for the stayers hurdle in March for which he is a best price 12/1 from 16/1 for at the moment. Some solid horses like Jetson were in behind the winner here while Monksland ran well after a two year injury lay-off and he should not be ruled out of this division just yet.
Silviniaco Conti cut for Cheltenham Gold Cup after second King George win
Faugheen a best price 5/4 in the Champion Hurdle market after Christmas Hurdle win on Boxing Day
Former Champion Hurdler Rock On Ruby on target for World Hurdle after New Year's Day Cheltenham success
JlT Novices Chase market headed by Ptit Zig after Paul Nicholls horses wins his 4th race on the bpounce this season