We are now less than eights weeks away from the Cheltenham Festival and that means that final plans are being made as the superstars of the sport are readied for their intended targets. It is the same for punters as we all try and get out ante-post selections in order before we settle down full of excitement and expectation for the Festival itself in March.
The big races are continuing to come on a regular basis on both sides of the Irish Sea and that has been the case this past week with a number of very important horses taking to the track for the final time before the spring. They all feature in our Road to Cheltenham blog this morning as we once again track all of the eye catchers and ante post Festival market movers right here in a bid to find as many winners as possible in March.
Weekend Eye Catchers UK
There is only one place to start this week and that is with the return of the legendary Sprinter Sacre who finally re-appeared after more than a year off at Ascot on Saturday afternoon. The former Champion Chaser had suffered a heart problem during a race over the 2013 Festive period and everyone involved with the nine-year-old held their breath as the tapes went up in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot.
This is a race that Sprinter Sacre won two years ago with the ratings suggesting he had 30lbs in hand on the field if he was at his best. Under a nursing ride from Barry Geraghty, Sprinter Sacre travelled and jumped well before galloping to the front in his trademark style on the bend and he looked the winner all over at that stage.
Dodging Bullets was staying on well behind him though and when Sprinter Sacre was asked the question, he didn't find too much off the bridle and was beaten into second place by the Tingle Creek winner. Credit must go to Paul Nicholls and Dodging Bullets for the improvement in that horse but the focus rightly fell on the runner-up in the hours after the race. Connections were pleased with the way the Sprinter Sace travelled and with Barry Geraghty clearly keen to look after him after the last, both he and the winner are now fascinating betting prospects for Cheltenham.
Dodging Bullets looks rock solid in terms of form and fitness and has been cut from 10/1 into 4/1 for the Queen Mother Champion Chase while opinion on Sprinter Sacre is split as it stands. Bet Victor lengthened his Champion Chase price to 3/1 from 7/4 after the race with some saying he will never be the same again and others saying that he should improve enough from this run to be a major player in March. Time will tell.
Nicky Henderson and Barry Geraghty may have been slightly disappointed to see Sprinter Sacre get beaten but the pair did team up for a winner earlier on the card. Top Notch won the Sodexo Juvenile Hurdle ahead of the decent Golden Doyen and he looks another potential Triumph Hurdle contender for Seven Barrows at a price of around 16/1 as a result of this competitive success.
There was also a cracking card up at Haydock on Saturday afternoon with their Champion Hurdle trial the focus of the majority of the attention. All eyes were on The New One as he made his final appearance before the Festival but it was an underwhelming run from the horse despite the fact he still crossed the line in front. The Nigel Twiston-Davies trained horse jumped to his right on a consistent basis throughout the race before making a mistake three out which left him in trouble on testiing ground.
Sam Twiston-Davies had to get down to serious work to make sure that The New One got up on the line to beat Bertimont, which he did, but this didn't do anything to enhance his Cheltenham claims. He will surely be better on decent ground in March and can be forgiven for one poor run but Bet 365 did lengthen his Champion Hurdle price out to 3/1 from 5/2 following this sketchy performance.
Irish Weekend Eye Catchers
The feature card at Ireland on Saturday came at Naas as they hosted a couple of Graded races and both produced some nice winners to scribble into the notebook. The Limestone Lad Hurdle over 2m3f was won by the exciting Kitten Rock who has now won all three of his starts this term. The five-year-old is clearly on an upward curve for Edward O'Grady and Mark Walsh and he jumped really well on Saturday before seeing off the solid Glen's Melody on the run in.
Kitten Rock is in the Champion Hurdle field and was cut from 50/1 into 33/1 for that contest by skybet after the race and although he will have masses to find with the market leaders, he is an improver who could be a nice horse. Glen's Melody ran a very encouraging race in warm up for the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle with 8/1 the current best price in the village about him winning that one as a result of this nice prep run.
The other performance of note from the Naas card came in the Grade 2 Wodlands Park 100 Novice Chase over 3m. It was won but the strong staying Wounded Warrior who pulled well clear of the favourite Rule The World in a race which looked like a very decent one on paper. Stamina is clearly the main strength for Wounded Warrior with 33/1 on offer about him winning the RSA Chase while there are some suggestions that he could even run in the four miler at the Festival.
The action continued over in Ireland on Sunday with Vautour taking centre stage at Leopardstown as they hosted an excellent card. The Supreme Novices Hurdle winner from last year was on a retrieval mission after he was beaten at odds on last time out and the Willie Mullins horse duly bounced back in emphatic fashion to win the Killiney Novice Chase over 2m3f. It was a solid round of jumping from the horse who was well clear of Real Steel when he fell at the last on Sunday.
Willie Mullins indicated after this race that the JLT Novices Chase looks the likely target for Vautour and he was cut from 4/1 into 3/1 for that contest as a result of this latest facile success.
Midweek Eye Catchers on the Road To Cheltenham
Thurles played host to one of their biggest days of the year last Thursday with the Kinloch Brae Chase the feature race over 2m4. This was billed as a match between Don Cossack and Champagne Fever and that is exactly the way it played out, until the last fence.
Champagne Fever set a strong gallop as he tends to do and was going well until the much improved Don Cossack came upside him coming to the last. Don Cossack has been in excellent form this season and looked the winner at that stage and that was confirmed when Champagne Fever fell at the last. That left Don Cossack to cruise home and he was cut from 7/1 into 5/1 for the Ryanair Chase which looks a more than fair price for such a classy improver.
Mullins and Walsh were disappointed to see Champagne Fever fall but the pair were in the winners enclosure on Thursday as Vroum Vroum Mag enhanced her already burgeoning reputation. She won the Mares Novice Chase by 26 lengths without breaking into a sweat and this horse really could be anything for Rich Ricci. She will of course need to prove herself against the boys at some stage but Vroum Vrooum Mag is currently a 16/1 shot for the JLT Novices Chase at Cheltenham which looks more than fair given her undoubted quality and class.
Sprinter Sacre out to 3/1 for the Queen Mother Champion Chase after he is defeated by Dodging Bullets on comeback at Ascot
Willie Mullins confirmed that Vautour is likely to be aimed at the JLT Novices Chase after his win at Leopardstown on Sunday
Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock won by The New One but he drifts out to 3/1 in the Champion Hurdle Betting after the race