We have once again enjoyed another weekend of top class racing action over the jumps with some interesting performances coming on both sides of the Irish Sea. The major card in the UK on Saturday was at Kempton Park, while there was also some notable performances over in Ireland at both Punchestown and Navan. The Cheltenham Festival is now just over eight weeks away and as usual on a Monday, we have put together all the main ante-post Festival market movers and eye-catchers from the weekend in one column.
We may not have seen any of the real superstars of the sport this week but there were some nice performances from young horses in particular that took the eye.
The pick of the action kicked off at Kempton Park on Saturday afternoon with the re-arranged Tolworth Hurdle one of the highlights. The Grade 1 affair looked a competitive renewal on paper and that is exactly how it turned out as the two Nicky Henderson runners pulled well clear of the field. In the end, it was Royal Boy who held on from Josses Hill to take the big prize under a strong ride from AP McCoy at odds of 9/1.
Stamina was perhaps the telling factor here in testing conditions with Royal Boy expected to be at his best over further than the two miles on offer here. The Neptune Investment Novices Hurdle is his likely target at Cheltenham with most firms installing him as a general 14/1 shot for that race after his Kempton win. Josses Hill didn't lose too much in defeat and he is likely to head for the Supreme Novices Hurdle at the Festival for which he can be backed at 14/1, from 20/1 following Saturday's run.
There was more success for AP McCoy on the Kempton card as he won the Juvenile Hurdle aboard Goodwood Mirage in some style. The Jonjo O'Neill horse was the 6/4 favourite and eventually won by a short-head after an indifferent round of jumping and he could be slightly better than the bare form suggests. Connections indicated that he could come back to Kempton for the Adonis next month before a potential tilt at the Triumph Hurdle, for which he was cut from 33/1 into 25/1 for as a result of this win, which was his first start over obstacles following his transfer from the flat yard of William Knight.
The feature race on the Kempton card was the Lanzarote Hurdle and we saw a very impressive win from the progressive Saphir Du Rheu. The Paul Nicholls trained five-year-old was up 15lbs for his last win, but that didn't stop him here as he pulled well clear of a strong field to win by six lengths. Connections have pointed out that chasing will bring the best out of Saphir Du Rheu but he will remain over hurdles for the time being, with the horse cut from 12/1 into 7/1 facourite for the Coral Cup after this success.
It should also be noted that former Arkle winner, Captain Chris, romped to victory at the Surrey track in the Williamhill.com Chase over 2m4f. The Philip Hobbs runner proved his class once again to smash Champion Court and Twinlight and connections are now busy planning his route into the Spring. The ten-year-old is a 20/1 shot from 50/1 for the Gold Cup with Bet365, but he has had trouble going left handed in the past which could mean he swerves Prestbury Park for Punchestown instead.
There was also a decent card at Warwick on Saturday with the Leamington Novices Hurdle the key race for those looking for Festival clues. The 2m 5f event is an obvious trial for the Neptune and was won by the classy Deputy Dan who won a touch cosily in the end, seeing off seven rivals by nine lengths. He is another decent horse from the Oliver Sherwood yard and Deputy Dan was cut from 33/1 into 16/1 for the Neptune as a result of this latest eye-catching success.
David Pipe has long thought highly of Red Sherlock and the five-year-old lived up to those expectations with a comfortable win at Wetherby on Saturday afternoon. It was a relatively facile success in week field but Red Sherlock did it well and he could be something of a dark horse for some ante-post Cheltenham punters. He is another likely Neptune runner and although he needs to improve, Red Sherlock could appeal to some at 14/1 from 16/1 for the middle distance contest in March.
It would be impossible for us to do our weekly 'Road to Cheltenham' feature without mentioning Willie Mullins, and once again, the Irish Champion trainer tasted some big race success over the weekend. Perhaps the stand-out runner for Mullins this weekend was the highly touted Vautour who won the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle at Punchestown on Saturday. The five-year-old was solid, without being spectacular, as he won the Grade 2 race by just three quarters of a-length.
Mullins said after the race that maybe Vautour had idled in front but in truth, it is hard to asses his Cheltenham chances off the back of this run. The bookmakers were uninpressed though, with many holding the 8/1 for the Supreme Novices Hurdle after the race with a couple trimming to 7/1, despite the fact he has won both starts this season. At this stage, Vautour could be anything but he will need to improve again to win a competitive looking opening race at the Festival.
There was more success for Willie Mullins at Navan on Sunday afternoon with Un De Sceaux winning the Follow Navan on Facebook Hurdle over two miles. Ruby Walsh was on the unbeaten six-year-old as he stormed to victory to remain on course for the Champion Hurdle in March. He was popped out in front at Navan and showed a good engine to dispatch Akatara by 53 lengths to enhance his growing reputation.
The bookmakers were impressed enough with Un De Sceaux to shave his Champion Hurdle price by a couple of points from 16/1 into 14/1. That price could make some each-way appeal but the truth at the moment is that it is impossible to know just how good this horse is. He has won all six of his starts which is impressive but has plenty to find against the likes of stable-mate, Hurricane Fly.