December is always a jam packed month of jump racing with the action coming thick and fast as the weather closes in and that has been the case once again this past week with plenty of talking points to pick over. As always on a Monday, I (@seanraymond)will be rounding up all over the important winners and market movers from the past week of racing with half an eye on right now and and the other half on March and the Festival.
This week we take a closer look at the Tingle Creek which attracted controversy on Saturday whilst we also dissect the dominance of Willie Mullins over in Ireland as he enjoyed another stunning weekend.
Sire De Grugy Back To Form At Sandown
Few races have the history and prestige that the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown has attached to it and we saw another thrilling renewal on Saturday. It was Sire De Grugy who bounced back to form in terrific style to win the race for a second time and once again mark himself out as a real contender in this division this winter.
The 2014 Champion Chaser looked a shadow of his former self last time out when only 5th in the Haldon Gold Cup but he looked a picture at Sandown on Saturday and duly impressed with a strong round of jumping. It was great to see the former Champion back to somewhere near his best and Bet 365 were impressed enough to slash his Queen Mother Champion Chase price from 40/1, into 10/1, as a result of this success.
The win was not without controversy though as Sire De Grugy jumped into Special Tiara at the last and plenty believe that the Henry de Bromhead horse should have been awarded the race as a result. Special Tiara was certainly hindered at the last and ended up closing in on the winner but the stewards decided to leave the places unchanged.
Our followers were almost split on the outcome of the Stewards enquiry with 51% believing that the stewards made the right decision but this remains a hugely difficult issue for the sport.
Elsewhere on the Sandown card we saw some other nice performances for the old notebook. O O Seven was very impressive in winning the Novices Hurdle over 2m for Nicky Henderson at the Esher Track and he now looks like a horse to follow for the remainder of the season and an initial price of 50/1 with Paddy Power for the Neptune could turn out to be nice value.
We should also mention the Gary Moore trained Ar Mad who won the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices Chase ahead of the highly touted Bristol De Mai. It was a super performance on the eye from the 14/1 shot and he could be one to follow although connections have suggested that he is far better going right handed which might rule out Cheltenham for him.
Willie Mullins Hitting Top Gear
This column never passes by without a mention of at least one Willie Mullins winner each week but this weekend was a particularly big one for the Champion Irish handler. He sent out some of his very exciting horses on both sides of the Irish Sea for their seasonal debuts and as you would expect, the majority of them impressed big time.
It started up at Aintree on Saturday as RSA Chase winner and Gold Cup fancy Don Poli won the Betfred Lotto Chase on his first start of the season and it was a very pleasing return. A strong stayer, Don Poli seems to get better the further he goes and that was the case here as he pulled clear of Many Clouds and this was a very nice start to his season for the Gigginstown animal.
Don Poli tends to save his best for the Festival in March as he has shown for the past two years and there is no doubt that his galloping style should suit the Gold Cup.He certainly looked well here and was trimmed from 8/1, into 6/1, by Bet365 for the Gold Cup as a result of this win. He could go to the Lexus Chase.
The Mullins juggernaut moved to home soil on Sunday as Punchestown hosted a terrific card with no less than three big winners for the trainer and all three could have bigger targets this season, The highly touted Yorkhill finally made his hurdling debut on the card and he duly won in impressive style over 2m4f for Graham Wylie.
Yorkhill was a very nice Punchestown Festival Bumper winner but he looked equally at home over the hurdles and his future looks bright at this early stage. His optimum trip remains a mystery but at this stage he is the 8/1 (from 12s) favourite with Sky Bet for the Neptune after this nice start.
After Yorkhill, we saw two of the Rich Ricci battalion make their seasonal debuts and both were very impressive. Gold Cup 2nd Djakadam picked up his first Grade 1 victory in the John Durkan Chase, while Pont Alexandre returned from an almost 1000 day absence to win on his chasing debut.
Djakadam ran a monster race in the Gold Cup to finish 2nd last year as a 6-year-old and he was very impressive here as he swept aside some good horses and given his age, there is every chance he can be a major player in the Gold Cup again this season. The bookies are certainly of that view as a result of his John Durkan win with Djakadam now as a short as 7/1 (from 10s) with Bet365 to win the Gold Cup in March.
The performance of Pont Alexandre was perhaps the best of the Willie Mullins winners this weekend as he returned from a monster lay-off to claim an easy win on his chasing debut. He was a very highly touted hurdler and looked very happy over fences at Punchestown despite the lay-off and it is hard to argue with his current price of 12/1 for the RSA Chase as a result of this taking success.
Other Eye Catchers This Week
We have outlined a number of the eye catchers already from this past week from Sandown and Punchestown but there was plenty of other action elsewhere and we have picked the best of them.
Tea For Two was a very good hurdler for Nick Williams and he looked every inch a star on Friday as he made a successful chasing debut down at Exeter. He was fluent at his fences and travelled like a good thing up against some average opponents it has to be said but this is a solid horse and he has been installed as a general 16/1 shot for the JLT in March at Cheltenham, which could be an each way punt for some.
Lizzie Kelly has built up a brilliant partnership with Tea For Two and she summed up her thoughts on Tea For Two with one succinct word!
We also want to mention a couple of winners from Sunday as Al Ferof returned with a bang to win the Peterborough Chase on his first start for Dan Skelton and La Bague Au Roi claimed a very impressive win at Aintree for Warren Greatrex.
Al Ferof has been a top horse years now as we all know and he looked very good as he won up at Huntingdon and looked to have Ptit Zig beaten when he fell at the last. The grey was slashed for the King George as a result of this run and could have place claims there, while a Gold Cup run could be on the cards although you get the feeling he might just fall short in both races.
The other performance of note from Huntingdon on Sunday came from the excellent La Bague Au Roi who maintained her unbeaten record in the Mares Flat Race. The 4-year-old won as she liked for the on the on-the-up-trainer and this could be a special hose for the future. She is being aimed towards the Mares Flat race at Aintree in April which will be her biggest test yet but either way she is one for the tracker.
Road to Cheltenham Summary
Pont Alexandre slashed for the RSA Chase after returning from near 1000 day-off lay-off to win Chase debut at Punchestown
Tea For Two a 16/1 for the JLT Novices Chase at Cheltenham after stunning chase debut win at Exeter on Friday
Don Poli and Djakadam both cut for the Gold Cup after wins at Aintree and Pucnhestown for Willie Mullins
Sire De Grugy keeps Tingle Creek despite last fence drama with Special Tiara at Sandown