Our team of racing experts put their heads together to look back upon the action during the Open Meeting at Cheltenham.
So that was the Open meeting. Which performance over the three days came closest to persuading you to have an ante-post bet at the Cheltenham Festival as a result?
Michael Shinners: I was impressed by Royal Irish Hussar in the JCB trial on Saturday. He clearly has an engine, but also showed an excellent attitude when asked to battle after coming off the bridle. Nicky Henderson's comments were a little lukewarm afterwards, but in my opinion he has certainly set a marker for the rest of the juveniles.
Ben Coley: Tricky but I'd probably say The Liquidator in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, although I must stress I've not backed him and don't plan on doing so just yet. It's fair to suggest that Sea Lord didn't reproduce the form he'd shown previously but I really liked the way David Pipe's horse went about his business and I'm not sure he should be six points bigger than the well-touted West Wizard at this stage. The Liquidator's Cheltenham bumper fourth should prove excellent form but it's also worth noting that his win at Punchestown has worked out superbly and I'm sure Pipe is nowhere near the bottom of him yet. From what limited evidence we have I'd say he should perhaps be favourite for the Supreme but that's probably to say West Wizard is too short, rather than this one being particularly overpriced.
Ian Ogg: A real poser but I did love the performance of Red Sherlock in winning the bumper on Sunday. He's more than a talking horse having won all three starts and stable confidence behind him is clearly sky high and the weekend did nothing to dispel that. I thought he was a standout in the paddock and I can't wait to see him over hurdles. He's quoted at 25/1 for the Sky Bet Supreme which is tempting as his odds will surely come crashing down after he's won his hurdling debut as the bookies never miss an opportunity to cut the odds do they Michael?
Will Hayler: Le Bec did everything that could have been wanted in a potential RSA Chase candidate, jumping well and seeing out the trip well to hold off Shutthefrontdoor. Frankly, I'm surprised at his price and even more surprised to see Champagne Fever heading the betting for the same race - he hardly looked a horse crying out for a trip when making a winning start over fences the same day.
If Sire De Grugy was being considered as a possible pretender to Sprinter Sacre's throne, does that mean Kid Cassidy must now be too? Or is Sire De Grugy simply not that good?
WH: I'm convinced Jamie Moore will have been kicking himself when Kid Cassidy sailed past. To some extent, he had to go to the front when he did as Sire De Grugy was travelling well but jumping poorly. But this isn't a slow horse and had he been given a similarly patient ride to the winner, the result might just have been reversed. Both can surely only win the Champion Chase if neither Sprinter Sacre nor Simonsig turn up, but I wouldn't be in a rush to put the form down too much with solid 157-rated yardstick Oiseau de Nuit 13 lengths behind in fourth under his optimum conditions.
BC: I don't quite know what to make of the Shloer Chase but the bottom line is neither horse is close to good enough to win even a poor Champion Chase in my opinion, let alone one which, all being well, should see a genuine star take his chance. Sire De Grugy jumped really poorly and although he won on good ground in the Celebration, that's a race which is ridiculously easy to pick holes in and the feeling is deep ground is required for Gary Moore's horse to produce his absolute best. It's not impossible that we could get such conditions in March and in them he could run well enough but barring accidents he has absolutely no chance if that's as good as he is. Kid Cassidy was given a great ride and clearly has his own ideas about the game, but in terms of latent ability he might be a shade better than Sire De Grugy and could outrun his odds in a Champion Chase if AP can keep him interested and attached early on.
IO: He was never a realistic challenger and neither is Kid Cassidy. It's a little like the World Hurdle scene when Big Buck's was dominating in that any horse that wins a half-decent race is unfairly hailed as the young pretender or any striker at Wolves is compared to Steve Bull. There was only one Steve Bull.
MS: I think we are looking for a horse to challenge Sprinter Sacre and although Sire De Grugy is a very good horse, he was beaten fair and square by Kid Cassidy on Sunday. As for Kid Cassidy, he was given a cracking ride by McCoy but ultimately is 2 stone behind Sprinter Sacre.
The Liquidator never saw a rival in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle Trial. Can he be a legitimate contender in the big one in March?
BC: There's a long way to go and I'm sure an Irish contender or three will emerge sooner rather than later but, as mentioned above, for now he's the best I've seen although we'll know more when West Wizard and Briar Hill are in action.
MS: I think he has to be respected after that performance. Clearly his main rival Sea Lord underperformed, however, the way he jumped and quickened clear rounding the bend, showed he is a serious runner at this stage. I think the ground was in his favour on Sunday, as it was a little holding and I would be slightly worried on really quick ground, although the chances of that for the first race of the Festival are slim - indeed, I would be 4/6 'good to soft' being the opening ground description on day one!
WH: I'd need to see more evidence first. Sea Lord looked as if he spat the dummy out and with Lac Fontana also showing next-to-no sparkle, the form looks deeply suspicious to me.
IO: Absolutely. The Weatherbys Champion Bumper (in which he was fourth) has proved surprisingly relevant to the Supreme in recent years given that the general consensus is that bumper winners need a touch of stamina and further than the minimum. Sunday's form can obviously be knocked but he could hardly have been more impressive and has to be taken seriously.
Which horses who failed to win at the meeting went into your notebook as possible future winners?
IO: I need to spend some time looking at our video form section but I thought Port Melon travelled like a good horse for a long way in the Neptune on Friday and, given the yard had a pretty frustrating three days, he can be expected to improve considerably on that run. In the melee of the Greatwood, Ifandbutwhynot was badly hampered but made quite good progress into midfield and he could pick up another decent handicap hurdle this season.
MS: Although the Cross Country Chase isn't everyone's cup of tea, I was really taken with Chicago Grey's performance on Friday. He travelled really well into the race and was jumping well until making a mistake and dropping him right back to almost last. He wasn't knocked about by Davy Russell but was staying on strongly up the hill and granted decent ground at the Festival I could see him playing a major role in the equivalent race.
BC: I thought Shutthefrontdoor lost nothing in defeat to Le Bec on Saturday while obviously Colour Squadron went down as an unfortunate loser in the Paddy Power Gold Cup. However the one I'm taking away from the meeting is Whisper, who I felt might have won on Friday but for poor leaps at the last three flights. What was particularly galling about that (bar having backed him) was the way he'd jumped up to that point, but going forward that acts as a positive and I'm certain he'll be rated a good deal higher than 137 when the season is out. He could even progress to the graded ranks but there must be a good handicap to be won with him along the way.
WH: I already have a race in mind for Whisper, Ben. It's the 2m5f handicap hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day, which the stable have targeted with similar types before. Not that Nicky Henderson needs me to show him around the programme book, of course. Others to take my eye over the three days were Burton Port (beaten a long, long way, but likely to recapture form before the end of the season), Get Me Out Of Here (travelled okay and might do better with AP back on board) and Tanerko Emery (hampered before staying on and definitely more races to be won with him).Away from Cheltenham. Hurricane Fly set a new mark for Grade One wins when beating his stablemates at Fairyhouse. What did you make racing's record breaker?
BC: Quite obviously, Hurricane Fly failed to set the pulse racing and I'm not convinced by the argument which says he's never at his best first time out, because while that's true he has always been a good deal better than he showed on Sunday. Does this mean he's a spent force? No. But while I'm sure he'll add to his Grade One tally - which deserves great praise - I'm close to certain that if The New One, Jezki and My Tent Or Yours line up to take him on in March, at least one of them will finish ahead of him and quite possibly all three. At this stage Jezki is probably the value in the race but The New One looks like he could be outstanding.
MS: It's a fabulous achievement, but for some reason he's a horse that I have never really warmed too. To win 17 Grade One races is phenomenal and perhaps if he retained his Champion Hurdle title I might show him the respect that he clearly deserves!
WH: A serious contender for the most underwhelming record-breaking achievement in racing since the days of Quixall Crossett, Hurricane Fly simply doesn't deserve to be judged on this hollow penalty kick against stablemates. Hopefully we'll see him return to something like his best before next March, in order to give us a clearer idea as to where the young pretenders stand against him before the big day.
IO: I'd echo the sentiments above regarding the achievement but, the world record aside, Sunday's race was rather a non-event on paper and on the track. Willie Mullins felt he was a long way off top form and it certainly looked that way. We'll be able to better judge whether age has begun to creep up on him next time.