With Christmas once again over before we knew it and the decorations again taking residence in the loft for the next eleven months, we were treated to some fantastic racing over the past few weeks from both Britain and Ireland.
Kempton hosted their usual Boxing day feast with another repeat King George winner from the Paul Nicholls yard in Clan Des Obeaux. The Ditcheat handler made no secret he believes Clan is a much stronger horse this season, and backed up his promising reappearance at Down Royal by outstaying Cyrname to win by 21 lengths.
If he can reproduce that effort he must go well in the Gold Cup, but may need slightly more in what appears a rather strong staying chase division.
Cyrname didn’t appear fully effective over the longer trip, and Paul Nicholls hasn’t ruled out races like the Champion Chase if the going was soft. It may also seem the clash with Altior took more out of more out of the pair than first though, with the champion chaser also not taking up his engagement over Christmas.
Again, it looks likely it will be the contest over the minimum trip for Altior this term, with the team at Seven Barrows happy to wait for Newbury next month.
Both Footpad and Lostintranslation were below par and now have questions to answer, especially the former, beaten again at Thurles last weekend.
Lostintranslation has since undergone wind surgery and will head to the Festival a fresh horse in the hope of getting their son Flemensfirth back to his very best.
In the Christmas Hurdle Epatante continued to impress, readily pulling clear of Silver Streak and Ballyandy sporting the famous green and gold silks. She has rightly taken her place towards the top of the betting for the champion hurdle, where she will aim to put her lacklustre run in the Dawn Run a year ago, behind her.
Sharjah did himself no harm by landing the Matheson Hurdle three days later, with Saldier also likely to start in the championship contest on the first of the day of the festival. Willie Mullins will once more have a very strong hand, despite last season’s Supreme winner Klassical Dream again hurting his chances with his unruly antics and poor jumping.
In the Savills Chase, Delta Work produced a fine turn of foot to land the spoils, holding off perennial bridesmaid Monalee by a head. While it wasn’t run a breakneck gallop, its clear this unexposed second season chaser could have a big say in the Gold cup, having not been beaten far in last years RSA, despite taking some chances at his fences.
Kemboy, cleared to run after the scandal with his previous owners, did little wrong in finishing fourth. Last season’s treble Grade 1 winner will head to the Irish Gold Cup next weekend and will be a very popular bet.
Another to take out of the race is Presenting Percy, who showed there may be a big prize in him by finishing half a length back in fifth.
If both line up at Leopardstown it will be a fascinating contest.
In the Novice Hurdle division, last season’s Champion Bumper winner Envoi Allen, made it three from three this campaign, and whilst the Champion Hurdle hasn’t been ruled out, it seems far more likely he will line-up in the Festival opener in the Supreme Novices. His stablemate Abracadabra boosted the form when taking the Future Champions Novice in style over Christmas leaving Gordon Elliott very much in the box seat.
The home challenge is headed by Fiddlerontheroof winning twice at Sandown, the latter at the top tier in the Tolworth. It was a performance which bookmarked his place in the Supreme, and the form from Britain is unlikely to be beaten going into the Festival. Nicky Henderson has two unexposed sorts in Shishkin and Chantry House both landing a novice either side of Christmas. The former being pushed out having showed a smart turn of foot, while the latter won at Cheltenham, beating Stolen Silver who did that form no harm when taking the Grade 2 Rossington Main last weekend at Haydock.
Racegoers in Ireland were treated to two box-office clashes on Boxing day, With Laurina taking on Fakir D’oudaries and Notebook in the Racing Post Novice Chase whilst Faugheen faced Samcro at Limerick. It was the outsider of the three, Notebook who caused a slight shock at Leopardstown, making it four from four over fences, holding off with Fakir D’oudaries while Laurina was bitterly disappointing and was pulled-up, with connections later stating the mare burst blood vessels.
The front two look full of class, pulling sixteen lengths clear of a fair yardstick in Royal Rendezvous and must head to Prestbury Park with a strong chance in the Arkle.
Faugheen nearly brought the house down in the Grade 1 Matchbook Exchange Novice Chase having raced prominently once more. Samcro went upsides four out, but the now twelve year old Faugheen found more on the run-in and Samcro bid a hasty retreat, eventually going down by ten lengths.
The Flogas Chase is being touted next for the Rich Ricci owned gelding and whilst his age would be a huge negative going in to the Festival, I simply cannot rule out another magical effort by Faugheen.
As for the juveniles, it appears we have three near the head of the betting for the Triumph Hurdle. Aspire Tower, Goshen and Allmankind were all more than creditable on the level before jumping hurdles this winter, with the trio still unbeaten.
Aspire Tower showed his Punchestown win was no fluke when winning by an even bigger margin at Leopardstown over Christmas, in what is usually a very solid trial for honours in the Spring.
Allmankind has the advantage of a Cheltenham win and that experience whilst he added a top level win in the Finale Hurdle at Chepstow by nine lengths.
Goshen is full of quirks but is undoubtedly hugely talented Jamie Moore earning his riding fee on each occasion and will have to do his best to keep a lid on the son of Derby winner, Authorised. It would be no surprise should any of the three win, but preference at this stage would be for the Irish raider, Aspire Tower, and I hope he lines up at the Dublin Racing Festival next weekend.
Tingle Creek winner, Defi Du Seuil once again locked horns with the lovable Un De Sceaux in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot a few days ago. Last years JLT winner has been near faultless over the minimum trip this term and once more made no mistake. Despite the heavy ground, Un De Sceaux could not match his rival as Defi Du Seuil cruised past two out and put the race to bed in a matter of strides.
A mouthwatering clash with his Punchestown conqueror Chacun Pour Soi and superstar Altior would surely be up there as one of the contests of the week in the Champion Chase, we can only hope all three get there and run up to form.
With key trials to come at Cheltenham, Doncaster, Leopardstown and Ascot over the next few weeks. It will be interesting to see who places their claim for Cheltenham glory and who’s bubble will be burst over this great time of year for jump racing fans.
By Chris Price
Additional pictures – Fran Altoft(Altior & Cover)