The racing world draws criticism for the apparent fascination with the Cheltenham Festival, and how the season beforehand is merely treated as a precursor to the Prestbury Park showpiece.
However, there is no denying that the week in March holds a special place in the national hunt calendar, and triumphing up that famous hill delivers some of the most treasured accolades.
And we may well have only just seen the final weekend in November, but with plenty of smart performances there were more than a few movers for contests in Gloucestershire in just over three months time.
First at Newbury, Sefton Novices’ Hurdle winner Thistlecrack showed that he is a second-season novice of unbound potential as he destroyed both Ladbrokes World Hurdle winner Cole Harden and Aintree Hurdle victor Whisper in the Long Distance Hurdle.
Colin Tizzard’s string have been fine fettle of late and the seven-year-old continued to demonstrate that the Dorset trainer is going great guns, staying on stoutly ahead of outsider of the field Deputy Dan for a six length victory.
Ladbrokes were impressed with the manner of the victory, halving him in price for World Hurdle success from 20/1 to 10/1, before sustained support force the bookmaker into cutting him again, making him an 8/1 shot.
Half an hour later and memories of Desert Orchid were invoked as the eye-catching grey Smad Place led from start to finish, jumped with aplomb, and stayed on up the Newbury home straight with real guts and determination to land the Hennessy Gold Cup.
So often a ‘nearly horse’ – six times placed in Grade 1s without winning – Alan King’s horse looked everything he had threatened to be as he won by 12 lengths, the biggest winning distance in 17 years.
While a trip to Kempton is unlikely, Ladbrokes added him to the King George VI Chase betting as a 10/1 shot, while he is the same price for the biggest prize of the lot, the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
What Newbury can do, Fairyhouse can do better, or so it seemed this weekend, as Sunday’s card at the County Meath track threw up a few potential stars.
Firstly, Long Dog led home a Willie Mullins one-two in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, a neck in front of stable-mate Bachasson.
The following race saw Champion Hurdle runner-up Arctic Fire justify his place as 4/5 favourite in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, and with 20lbs in hand with the majority of his rivals, it was nothing more than could be expected.
However, credit must be given for the way Ruby Walsh’s mount quickened up when asked on very soft ground, to win by four lengths.
After falling when in front at Aintree in April, it was just desserts for the six-year-old who was picking up his first Grade 1 success.
While the race was over a trip of 2m4f, the Champion Hurdle could be the aim in the spring, with Ladbrokes cutting his price from 12/1 to 8/1.
There will be no doubting the Festival target for Drinmore Novice Chase victor No More Heroes.
The Gordon Elliot trained gelding was tipped up as a potential RSA winner by Ladbrokes’ Hayley O’Connor before the off on Sunday, and the way he put the race to bed certainly backs that up.
Jumping with real efficiently, Bryan Cooper’s mount came home an easy two-and-a-half length victor from the smart Monksland, a win that sees him more to joint-favouritism for the 3m novice chase at the Festival at 6/1.
The day was rounded off with the maroon silks of Gigginstown House Stud carried to victory in the bumper by Lucky Pass.
Making his debut for Willie Mullins, the four-year-old showed a smart turn of foot and a willing attitude to justify his support in the market. He remains a 20/1 shot for the Champion Bumper that Mullins has taken eight times in the last two decades.
There may be a long way to go until Cheltenham, but what is for sure is that the potential front-runners for some of the biggest events are really starting to make themselves know.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.
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