Monday is always the day too catch our breath after a busy weekend of National Hunt racing and my word do we need to after one of the best weeks of jump racing in recent memory. The Open Meeting at Cheltenham is often seen by many as the true start to the jumps season and it certainly did not disappoint with three days of the very best action to review.
The Road To Cheltenham blog this week is a bumper edition with action at Cheltenham complimented by some excellent fixtures over in Ireland with all of the eye catchers and market-movers featuring right here.
Cheltenham Open Meeting Eye Catchers
The new stand at Cheltenham was officially opened at Prestbury Park on Friday as the Open Meeting got under-way in the sunshine and we saw some fitting performances on the track. The highlight of the day was certainly from the hugely exciting Shantou Village who simply bolted up for Neil Mulholland in the Neptune Trial race over 2m5f.
On paper, this looked like a very good field with the likes of Penglai Pavilion and the highly touted Champers On Ice both in the field but both of those were blown away by a horse who really could be anything. Shantou Village travelled really well before pulling clear with his Neptune Novices Hurdle price for the Festival cut into 12/1 (from 16s) by Bet365, while Betfair make him a best price of 14/1 for the Albert Bartlett after this impressive display.
We also saw the return of More Of That at Cheltenham on Friday as the 2014 World Hurdle winner made his chasing debut in the Steel Plate & Sections Novices Chase and he certainly did not disappoint. Off the track for almost a year, More Of That looked a natural over the bigger obstacles to the delight of Jonjo O'Neill and it was hard not to be impressed by this performance with some solid horses well beaten.
Denman, Impreial Commander and Dynaste are just three of the recent winners of the Steel Plate Novices Chase and as a result, More Of That was slashed into 6/1f (from 12s) for the RSA Chase in March.
We must also mention the performance of Josies Orders in the Cross Country race on Friday with Edna Bolger and Nina Carberry once again combining for a winner. It was a very taking performance from a young horse and a brilliant ride from Carberry and Josies Orders is sure to be aimed at the Cross Country race in March, for which he can now be backed at a best price of 10/1 for with William Hill.
Sunday was a truly special day at Cheltenham with some top quality racing supplemented by the return to form of a racing legend. At one stage, Sprinter Sacre was simply unbeatable but he was a shadow of his former self last season as Nicky Henderson struggled to get the horse to recover from a heart problem.
Amidst deafening calls for Sprinter to be retired, connections were clearly keen to give the horse another chance and how they were proved right on Sunday as he simply hacked up to win the Shloer Chase. A great roar went up when Sprinter Sacre eased clear of a good field hard on the bridle and although it is hard to say this was him back to his best, there were certainly signs of the old Sprinter on Sunday.
It was a great moment and the sky could be the limit for Sprinter Sacre now this season with his price for the Queen Mother Champion Chase slashed from 16/1, into 3/1, by Bet365 after this win.
It was great to see a true champion back to form and his performance was summed up by RP Journalist Bruce Millington;
As well as Sprinter Sacre, Nicky Henderson also tasted success at Cheltenham on Sunday with the exciting Altior making it 3 from 3 with a fine performance in the Supreme Trial race. He battled Maputo all the way up the hill before coming out on top and he was trimmed into 20/1 (from 25s) for the Supreme Novices Hurdle with Sky Bet as a result of this win.
The Arkle Trial on Sunday has a similarly good record in producing classy winners and that looked the case again with Garde La Victoire claiming an impressive win for Philip Hobbs and Richard Johnson. Garde La Victoire impressed on debut recently and he did again with a good round of jumping and Bet Victor cut him into 12/1 (from 16s) for the Arkle Chase in March as a result of this taking success ahead of Fox Norton.
There were a number of big handicap races at Cheltenham over the weekend with Annacotty winning the Paddy Power Gold Cup and Old Guard claiming the Greatwood Hurdle and both of these are also horses to keep an eye on, especially Old Guard who at just four, should have much more to offer.
One other horse that caught our eye this past week was Modus who won his hurdling debut at Taunton last week in super impressive style. The Paul Nicholls trained horse was a top notch bumper animal and he looked every inch the hurdler last Thursday as he jumped well before quickening up in very taking fashion to pull well clear of a good horse in 2nd place and as a result, Modus is now a 14/1 (from 16s) for the Supreme Novices Hurdle at the Festival.
Irish Eye Catchers This Week
Cheltenham was the centre of the jump racing this weekend but there has been some terrific performances over in Ireland as well over the past seven days, including a massive shock on Sunday. The Morgiana Hurdle was meant to be a relatively easy start to the season for the unbeaten Faugheen at Punchestown but it didn't go to script as he was beaten for the first time ever at 1/6f.
It was his stable-mate Nichols Canyon who was too good on the day and both of these horses now offer punters a major dilemma. Faugheen is now out to as big as 15/8, from 11/10, with Paddy Power for the Champion Hurdle while Nichols Canyon now looks a genuine 2 mile threat and can be backed at 6/1, from 16/1, with Sky Bet for the Champion Hurdle.
Nichols Canyon won four Grade 1 races as a Novice last season and was clearly no mug but there was no doubt this was a shock for Willie Mullins with Faugheen unable to pick up the front runner and it has opened up the Champion Hurdle market.
The win from Sprinter Sacre and the defeat of Faugheen capped a remarkable few minutes on Sunday and social media predictably exploded;
Elsewhere at Punchestown on Sunday we saw something very good indeed from the highly impressive Sizing John who seems to be taking to fences rather well. The Henry de Bromhead trained 5-year-old won the Craddockstown Novice Chase in testing ground in very impressive fashion and he was trimmed from 14/1 into 12/1 for the Arkle in March as a result, while he is the same price for the JLT.
We must also mention the hurdling debut of Bellshill at Cork yesterday for Willie Mullins. A top class Bumper horse for the Champion Grainer, Bellshill impressed in winning the 2m Maiden Hurdle at Cork and he really could be anything which means he is the current 12/1 jolly for the Neptune in March.
Willie Mullins had more success at Clonmel last Thursday with unbeaten Mare Vroum Vroum Mag making her season debut with a comfortable winning performance in a Mares Chase over 2mf. Her optimum trip and target remains a mystery but at this stage she is a best price 14/1 for the Ryanair Chase after this latest facile success and who knows how good she is to be honest.
The highlight of that Clonmel card was the Oil Chase which was won by Road To Riches who was making his seasonal debut for Noel Meade. Good enough for 3rd in the Gold Cup last season, Road To Riches is a horse of the highest order and he looked well last week and it is hard to argue with his price of 16/1 (from 20s) for the Gold Cup from an each-way perspective.
Road To Cheltenham Summary This Week
Sprinter Sacre back with a bang in the Shloer Chase and is slashed in the Queen Mother Champion Chase as a result
Red hot favourite Faugheen beaten in the Morgiana and is out to 15/8F for the Champion Hurdle in March
Top Bumper horse Bellshill makes winning Hurdling debut and is a 12/1 shot for the Neptune Novices Hurdle in March
Road To Riches cut into 16/1 for the Gold Cup after successful performance in the Clonmel Oil Chase