It has been another hectic week on the Road to Cheltenham with some of the superstar names of the support making their presence felt on the National Hunt scene for the first time this winter. The big races are now coming thick and fast on both sides of the Irish Sea and we are starting to garner clues for the Festival on an almost daily basis.
Regular readers of this column will know that we normally focus on the weekend racing first on a Monday morning but there is a change of tact today. One trainer has dominated the sport over the past seven days with Willie Mullins banging out the winners at an alarming rate and almost all of them are horses who could well go to Cheltenham in March with every chance of running a big race.
Notable Willie Mullins Winners from the Last Week
The Irish Champion Trainer often waits until November to get his string into top gear and that has certainly been the case over the past couple of weeks. We were at Fairyhouse last Wednesday to take in some nice action and Mullins was hand to pick up two very impressive mid-week winners to take note of.
We saw the hurdling debut of top Bumper horse Shaneshill who secured a facile win on his first start over the obstacles. Shaneshill proved himself a classy performer on the flat last season and he looked at home at Fairyhouse as he won over 2m4f. He travelled and jumped well, particularly as he pulled clear on the home straight and Shaneshill looks very much like one to follow over the hurdles.
The five-year-old has form over two miles and he is a 12/1 shot for the Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenhambut he clearly stays further which is reflected in his even shorter price of 10/1 for the Neptune as a result of this impressive debut win.
Mullins had an even more impressive hurdling winner on the Fairyhouse card on Wednesday with Outlander claiming an 11 length success. The 6-year-old was another decent bumper horse last season and he looked very classy on Wednesday as he won with his head in his chest over two miles. Outlander looks like a stayer in the making and is available at 25/1 for the Neptune and 20/1 for the Albert Bartlett following this very taking maiden hurdle triumph.
The winners kept coming for Mullins over the weekend with Champion Hurdle favourite Faugheen making the trip over the Sea for the Coral Hurdle at Ascot and duly winning at long odds on. The Neptune winner from last season has speed to burn as well as stamina which is a frightening combination, and he was given an excellent front running ride from Ruby Walsh at Ascot on Saturday before he pulled clear of some decent horses. Faugheen jumped and looked enthusiastic which is promising and he was cut from 3/1 into 5/2 for the Champion Hurdle in the hours after this win.
While Faugheen was winning at Ascot, the Mullins team were continuing its stunning form over at Gowran Park, with some more brilliant performances. Ballycasey has been a strong horse for a few years now and he was cut from 14/1 into 10/1 for the Ryanair Chase following a nice win in the 2m4f Chase on Saturday.
It was a nice performance from Ballycasey and the same can be said of Douvan and Tell Us More who both win in very facile fashion over hurdles for Mullins on the same card. Douvan won the 2m Novice Hurdle at odds on and he has been slashed from 20/1 into 10/1 for the Supreme Novices Hurdle, while Tell Us More is a 12/1 shot for the Neptune in March afer his win.
Willie Mullins rolled out another Cheltenham Festival winner at Navan on Sunday as Vautour returned to the track for the first time this season. The 5-year-old was the stunning winner of the Supreme Novices Hurdle last season and he looked as good as ever as he won the 2m1f Beginners Chase in easy fashion on his first start over the fences and he was trimmed from 6/1 into 5./1 for the Arkle Chase as a result of this win which looks a fair price for such a good horse.
Other Notable Winners this Last Week
The feature race of the weekend in the UK was at Haydock Park on Saturday with the Betfair Chase the highlight. The Betfair has grown into a key Gold cup trial in recent years and we saw a very nice performance from Silviniaco Conti who once again gave Paul Nicholls a win in the race. He jumped and travelled well before pulling clear of Menorah to set himself up for the defence of his King george crown next month.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup remains the key aim for Silviniaco Conti and Bet Victor were so impressed with his second Betfair Chase win in three yeras that they cut him from 14/1 into 6/1 favourite for the race in March. Cue Card faded in worrying fashion and he is best watched next time out, while Dynaste looked solid back in third place for David Pipe and he too is headed for the King George on Boxing Day.
Saturday was a good day for Team ditcheat with Paul Nicholls also picking up a big winner at Ascot with Al Ferof. The likeable grey has been s stable star for some time now and he looked as good as ever as he won the 1965 Amlin Chase for the second season in succession. Al Ferof jumped and travelled with gusto and the King George is his next aim over Christmas while the Ryanair Chase has to be the Spring aim for which he was cut into 12/1 from 20/1 for after this Ascot success.
Nicholls also tasted success this past week with a couple of younger horses in the form of Ptit Zig and Virak who both impressed on their way to mid-week wins. Ptit Zig won his second novice chase of the campaign at Wawrick last Wednesday and he is now a best price of 16/1 for the Arkle, while Virak won a decent race at Haydock on Friday and he is a best price of 20/1 with Skybet to win the JLT in March as a result.
Gordon Elliott is always a trainer to follow with Cheltenham in mind and he gave one of his past Festival winners his first start of the winter at Gowran Park on Saturday. Don Poli won the Marin Pipe race at Prestbury Park last March and he looked in good shape at the weekend as he won the EBF Beginners Chase over 2m4f in fine fashion and connections were quick to nominate the four miler as his main aim in March and he could be one for the notebook.
One other horse we must mention before we wrap up is The New One who won the new hurdle race at Haydock on Saturday afternoon. The race was designed to attract Champion Hurdle horses and it did that as The New One won in relatively straight-forward fashion for Nigel Twiston-Davies. He jumped ok before staying on well and he remains a 7/2 shot for the champion Hurdle after this second win of the season. He was unlucky last season in the Cheltenham race after being hampered and the bookmakers are clearly keen to stay on the right side of this horse at the moment.
Festival winners Faugheen and Vautour both make successful returns for Willie Mullins
Silviniaco Conti wins the Betfair Chase and is the new Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite at 8/1 with Paddy Power
Shaneshill makes winning debut over hurdles for Willie Mullins at Fairyhouse
Al Ferof cut from 20/1 into 12/1 for the Ryanair Chase after Amlin win at Ascot