The weather around the UK over the weekend ensured that the ground was testing for the runners but that didn't stop us enjoying some great action. The Cheltenham Festival continues to creep ever closer and as its a Monday morning, we have once again picked out some of the more eye-catching performances from the past seven days. There was some great cards at Haydock and Ascot on Saturday while as always, there were also some notable Festival market-movers from Ireland to keep across.
The feature race at Ascot on Saturday was the Clarence House Chase over two miles and we saw a simply stunning performance from Sire De Grugy. The eight-year-old won his third race on the bounce to destroy a decent field by eleven lengths, enhancing his Cheltenham credentials in the process. The Gary Moore trained in-mate has now won the Tingle Creek, the Desert Orchid and the Clarence House Chase since the start of December to emerge as the main threat to Sprinter Sacre.
There are still fitness doubts surrounding Sprinter Sacre which does ensure that Sire De Grugy is an interesting horse in the Festival betting. The bookmakers were certainly impressed with him at Ascot with one firm cutting him from 4/1 into 11/4 for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. The whole market depends on how fit Sprinter Sacre is following his heart scare and there will surely be punters interested in taking on the current favourite with Sure De Grugy.
Elsewhere on the Ascot card we saw a very taking performance in the Mares race with the Harry Fry trained Highland Retreat taking the eye. The seven-year-old defeated the well fancied Carole's Spirit and Mickie a touch cosily in the end and she could be on her way to Cheltenham. Highland Retreat clearly wants plenty of juice in the ground and is not a certain runner at at the Festival, but she was cut from 20/1 to 14/1 for the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle after the race anyway.
Philip Hobbs always seams to feature in our Monday Road To Cheltenham blog and that is once again the case today. The famous trainer saddled Champagne West to a decent win at Ascot on Saturday and he looks like a nice prospect. The six-year-old won the EBF Stallions National Hunt Novices Hurdle over 2m6f in good style and he now looks set for the Pertemps Final for which he is available at 12/1 from 14/1.
There was also plenty of top class action at Haydock Park on Saturday with the Champion Hurdle Trial the feature race of the day. The race perhaps lacked a real top notch Champion Hurdle contender but we saw a very nice performance from the classy Melodic Rendezvous on the day, He was a well respected novice last season and looked back to his best here as he dispatched Ptit Zig with the minimum of fuss.
The Jeremy Scott horse was in receipt of four pounds from the second but either way it was a pleasing performance from the eight-year-old. Melodic Rendezvous did make a mistake at the second last but his Champions Hurdle price was cut from 50/1 into 20/1 after the race, which could make some appeal, if the ground comes up soft in March.
There was another pleasing performance at Haydock from the classy Taquin Du Seuil who won the Racing Post Celebrates Novices Chase over 2m5f. The Jonjo O'Neill trained seven-year-old has been a solid horse all season and he proved that here as he hacked up by 17 lengths in heavy ground. Its fair to say that he didn't beat too much on Saturday and his Cheltenham target remains very much in the air. He is clearly a strong stayer though and was cut from 16/1 into 12/1 for the RSA Chase as a result of this one, while he is a general 8/1 shot for the JLT Novices Chase.
Venetia Williams nearly always seems to pop up with a Cheltenham winner each season and one of hers that could be heading to Prestbury Park is the improving Zamdy Man. The five-year-old won the Supreme Novices Hurdle trial race at Haydock over two miles on Saturday to enter the Festival picture. He beat the well fancied Un Temps Pour Tout with a strong staying performance and Zamdy Man was installed as a 25/1 shot for the Supreme as a result of this nice success.
The highlight of the Naas card over in Ireland on Saturday was the Limestone Lad Hurdle over 2m3f. The race was won by Solwhit 12 months ago before he went onto win the World Hurdle at the Festival which ensures that this is always a race to keep a close eye on. There was a return to form for Rule The World who won the race in relatively straight-forward fashion to enhance his reputation. He was second in the Neptune last season and he looks happy over further which should play into his hands if, as expected, he heads to the World Hurdle.
Rule The World should improve for better ground at Cheltenham and punters wanting to back him for the World Hurdle after this win, will find the bookmakers disagreeing with each other. One firm cut Rule the World from 20/1 into 14/1 for the World Hurdle on Saturday while William Hill are still happy to have the horse at 25/1 for the same race. It should also be noted that Dunguib finished third in the Limestone Lad on his first start for almost three years and he could still have a big run left in him.
The other performance of note at Naas on Saturday, with Cheltenham in mind, came from the strong staying Foxrock in the Woodlands Park Novice Chase over three miles. The six-year-old won the Grade 2 contest with something in hand ahead of Sizing Gold who is a decent benchmark for form punters. Connections were quick to say that he will want even further with the National Hunt Chase at the Festival the target, for which he can now be backed at 8/1 from 10/1 for as a result of this latest triumph.
We couldn't let a blog go by without mentioning Wilie Mullins and we saw the Irish Champion Trainer saddle Clondaw Court to victory last week. Mullins has an embarrassment of riches in the novice hurdle ranks and this looks like another exciting horse. Clondaw Court won his fourth race from four runs in the EBF Novice Hurdle at Thurles last week over 2m6f on soft ground. He hasn't beaten too much but looks every inch an Albert Bartlett horse for which is now a 16/1 shot from 25/1.
The other interesting performance of note at Thurles last Thursday came from Last Instalment, even though he only finished third. The Philip Fenton trained nine-year-old had been off track for two years having had a massive reputation and it was a pleasing return. He was third in the Kinloch Brae Chase over 2m4f and should improves masses for the run after such a long lay-off. Talk of a Gold Cup run surrounds Last Instalment and although he still has plenty to prove, he was cut from 50/1 into 40/1 for the Gold Cup after this comeback run.