If the weekend’s National Hunt racing didn’t get the pulse racing and excitement building towards the biggest jumps prizes in the calendar, then nothing will.
As well as answering plenty of doubts, the action did throw up some curious questions of how things will unfold in the coming months.
Is there more to Cue Card defeat than meets the eye?
After bounding clear to win a second Betfair Chase, Silviniaco Conti was described by Noel Fehily as “an unbelievable stayer”, and with first-time cheekpieces applied there is nothing to doubt that description.
But it was the run in defeat for Cue Card that begs the most questions. Having travelled and jumped well for the first circuit, last year’s winner hit a couple in the back straight and faded very tamely in the home straight.
It wasn’t dissimilar to the way he stopped in the King George last year, before a hip injury was discovered, and following two disappointing runs back, one has to wonder whether he will ever be the same horse again.
Colin Tizzard’s pride and joy was pushed out to 12/1 to bounce back at Kempton on Boxing Day, and will have to go some to prove his well being after this weekend.
Competition for stable number one at Ditcheat
While Silviniaco was providing Nicholls with the first Grade 1 of the season at Haydock, another of his charges was running out an encouraging winner further south at Ascot.
Slightly more testing (in more than one sense) than his victory in a two-horse race 12 months ago Al Ferof had five rivals to see off this time over 2m3f.
The likeable grey did so with aplomb and confirmed there are plenty of races left to be won with him yet.
The King George is likely to be the next step, for which he is a 12/1 shot, but he would surely need decent ground to stand a chance.
Both times the John Hales-owned gelding has tried 3m he has faded late on. But as those runs were on very soft ground, he may be worth chancing should the conditions prove better this time round in Sunbury-on-Thames.
The New One and Faugheen set for bumper clash
And while the staying chasers division is hotting up, the excitement towards the Champion Hurdle isn’t far behind.
The New One had been top of many punters’ list for the Tuesday feature, and he continued his preparation in good style. Sent off at (ODDS) to make it two from two at Haydock, the six-year-old pressed on after the last to secure a cosy win under a super cool ride from Sam Twiston-Davies. He remains a 3/1 shot for the Champion Hurdle.
But he was usurped at the head of the market by a very exciting prospect at the weekend in this year’s Neptune winner Faugheen. He jumped round Ascot well and easily drew clear to demolish his rivals. Now a 5/2 chance, he looks the one they all have to beat.
All odds and markets correct as of the date of publishing
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