The arrival of the New Year is always an exciting time for National Hunt racing fans with the Cheltenham Festival now just 10 weeks away. The countdown to the biggest week of racing on the calendar is well and truly underway as the dust settles on what was a hectic festive period of jumps action.
The time between Christmas and the New Year is always a key period for the sport with some of the best fixtures of the season taking place on both sides of the Irish Sea.
There were bumper crowds at various tracks up and down the country with the stars of the sport strutting their stuff in great style. We have of course been keeping our eye across all the action with the Cheltenham Festival in March firmly in the front of our minds.
The majority of the Festival's ante-post markets have been shaken up considerably over the past week and we have picked out some of the more eye catching performances in a special edition of our 'Road to Cheltenham' feature.
The two-day post Christmas meeting at Kempton Park is always one of the best in the sport and that certainly proved to be the case this season. The King George VI Chase was the highlight on Boxing Day as some of the key contenders for the Gold Cup in March clashed in testing conditions over three miles. It was Cue Card who was popped out in front from the off, with the Ryanair Chase winner jumping and travelling with enthusiasm for much of the trip. However, he emptied quickly before the last to allow Silviniaco Conti to pull clear up the run in and claim the victory for Paul Nicholls.
The simple fact was that Cue Card didn't stay the trip while Silviniaco Conti had stamina in bags to claim a very impressive victory under Noel Fehily. The bookmakers were impressed with the winner with Silviniaco Conti cut from 8/1 into 4/1 for the Gold Cup as a result of this latest success. Cue Card on the other hand is on the drift in the Gold Cup market with the Ryanair Chase now looking like his most likely Festival target, for which he can be backed at 3/1.
The main supporting race to the King George on Boxing Day at Kempton was the Christmas Hurdle as two heavyweight Champion Hurdle contenders clashed. My Tent Or Yours and The New One were both among the best novices last season and both are expected to be right towards the head of the Champion Hurdle betting in March. The New One set a strong gallop but after a mistake at the last he was worn down by the impressive My Tent Or Yours.
The New One may well have won without that error but it was far from a certainty against the speedy MTOY. The New One stayed at around 3/1 for the Champion Hurdle as a result, while My Tent Or Yours was cut from 4/1 into 7/2 for the same race after his Kempton success.
There was a shock in the Kauto Star Feltham Novices Chase over three miles as the un-fancied Annacotty claimed a surprise success. The Martin Keighley horse produced a fine front running performance as favourite Just A Par flopped on Boxing Day. Annacotty is likely to head to the RSA Chase with the six-year-old available at around 25/1 for the Festival race following his career best performance.
The action continued at Kempton on the 27th December where Sprinter Sacre was the star turn on day two of the meeting. The Champion Chaser started the Desert Orchid Chase as the red hot favourite but was pulled up by Barry Geraghty. The Nicky Henderson horse was found to have an irregular heartbeat after the race and his Cheltenham hopes now hang in the balance. His withdrawal allowed Sire De Grugy to claim another big race win for the Moore family and in the process enhance his Cheltenham claims. Sire De Grugy was cut from 8/1, into 3/1 for the Queen Mother Champion Chase thanks to both his latest win and the fitness doubts surrounding Sprinter Sacre.
The other performance of note on the second day of the King George meeting came in the Wayward Lad Novices Chase over two miles. It was Dodging Bullets who claimed a very impressive win giving weight away to the classy Grandouet. The Paul Nicholls horse closed down Grandouet and pulled well clear when asked to by Daryl Jacob, with his Arkle Chase price cut from 14/1 into 8/1 as a consequence of this impressive performance.
The major festive racing festival over in Ireland is always at Leopardstown with four days of top class action filling the gap between Christmas and the New Year. The Grade One races came thick and fast throughout the week with a number of star names staking their Cheltenham claims in emphatic fashion.
The Paddy Power Future Champion Novice Hurdle over two miles threw up an interesting winner in the form of The Tullow Tank. The Philip Fenton horse stayed on strongly to win very well in the end with the pre-race favourite, Moyle Park, only managing a disappointing third place. The Tullow Tank looks to be improving nicely and is now as short as 10/1, from 16/1, for the Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham in March.
One of the highlights of the Leopardstown Christmas Festival is always the Lexus Chase and once again it didn't disappoint. Bobs Worth was on a retrieval mission after flopping in the Betfair Chase and the Gold Cup hero duly bounced back in emphatic fashion. The Nicky Henderson horse quickened up after the last to wear down the game First Lieutenant and win with something in hand on Saturday.
The way Bobs Worth quickened up was very impressive and he is now likely to go straight to the Gold Cup, for which he is now as short as 5/2 for as a result of this latest win.
The Ryanair Hurdle took place on the last day of the Leopardstown meeting and it was hotly anticpated as current Champion Hurdler, Hurricane Fly, went head-to-head with Our Conor and Jezki for the very first time. Ruby Walsh rode Hurricane Fly with great confidence and that was justified as the legendary horse quickened up after the last to win a touch cosily. Jezki was slightly hampered which could be an excuse, while Our Conor was beaten fair and square by one of the best hurdlers of recent memory.
There was a massive roar as Hurricane Fly returned to the winners enclosure for his 18th Grade One success and his attempt at wining a third Champion Hurdle looks bang on track. Punters wanting to back him for the feature race on day one of Cheltenham can now only get 7/2 from 6/1 before his latest success, while both Jezki and Our Conor drifted after their defeat at Leopardstown.
Later on the same card at Leopardstown, there was a big win for AP McCoy as the Champion jockey rode Carlingford Lough to victory in the Topaz Novice Chase over three miles. It was a strong performance as he beat Morning Assembly to enhance his Festival claims in March. Carlingford Lough was installed as a general 12/1 shot for the RSA Chase after this win which could prove to be a nice piece of value for a strong staying type.
Other Notable Performances Over The Christmas Period
There was plenty of other racing going on across the UK and Ireland outside of Kempton and Leopardstown and we have picked out some of the more notable winners. One of those certainly came at Newbury with the Challow Noivces Hurdle the highlight of their festive card. The Grade 1 affair over 2m5f was won by Captain Cutter for Nicky Henderson and AP McCoy ahead of Timesremembered and Oscar Rock. Captain Cutter was installed in the Neptune market as a result and is as short as 8/1 in places for the Festival contest.
There was also a decent card at Punchestown on New Years Eve with Willie Mullins tasting success with the classy Boston Bob. The former chaser is back over hurdles and he won the 2m4f contest with the minimum of fuss for connections. He didn't beat much but he remains an interesting World Hurdle contender, for which he can now be backed at 10/1 from 16/1 for as a result of this Punchestown success.
The traditional New Year's Day fixture at Cheltenham is always a decent card and we once again saw some decent performances. Oscar Whisky was certainly one of the highlights as he won the Dipper Chase for Nicky Henderson over 2m4f. In testing conditions he always had Taquin Du Seuil well held and was cut from 8/1, into 6/1, for the Jewson Novices Chase as a result.
The other notable winner on the Cheltenham card was the progressive Annie Power who once again continued her unbeaten record for Willie Mullins. This time she won the Dornan Engineering Hurdle over 2m4f ahead of Zarkandar to enhance her growing reputation. Annie Power was cut from 10/1 into 8/1 for the Champion Hurdle, while she is also as short as 4/1 for the World Hurdle with connections still pondering her spring target.