Alex Hammond considers the contenders as the Cheltenham festival build-up begins.
Last Updated: 03/02/12 12:53pm
Well the Cheltenham pointers are coming thick and fast and there were some breath-taking performances at Cheltenham and Leopardstown over the weekend. The standout has to be Hurricane Fly who won convincingly on his first start since May.
His trainer Willie Mullins hadn't been happy with the reigning champion until recently but he proved that was only a temporary blip. He looks hard to beat at Cheltenham unless something like Zarkandar impresses in the meantime.
Mullins understandably feels he will improve for the run and is just concentrating on keeping him sound. He is 4/5 favourite for the Champion Hurdle, Zarkandar is 7/1 and set to run in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. Binocular (9/1 for Cheltenham) is also set to strut his stuff at Sandown this weekend if the meeting is on. Hurricane Fly is bidding to become the first horse since Hardy Eustace in 2005 to retain the title at Cheltenham in March.
Flemenstar was one of our selections last week and he duly obliged in the Irish Arkle. We are unlikely to see him at Cheltenham though as he doesn't travel well. He relished the testing conditions and will now be trained for the Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse at Easter.
This win was a form boost for Tony Martin's Bog Warrior who beat this horse convincingly at Navan in November but fell at Leopardstown in a Grade 1 over Christmas - he is 12/1 for the RSA Chase and 16/1 for the Arkle.
Midnight Chase was a Gold Cup market mover after his win in the Argento Chase. Neil Mulholland's horse loves Prestbury Park and was fifth in the Gold Cup last year. In an open year he may be worth considering at his favourite venue and is 16/1 with Sky Bet for the Blue Riband.
What can you say about Big Buck's? Granted he had to work harder to beat Dynaste than he has of late, but he is still dominating the staying division. I hope you backed Dynaste each way as advised on the blog last week. Big Buck's is 4/9 for the World Hurdle and Dynaste is 10s. Big Buck's is canny and he was never in any danger of being beaten and I can't see that being any different in March.
Calgary Bay continued Hen Knight's good Saturday run. He is now 25/1 for the Grand National after a win in Doncaster's Sky Bet Chase. It seems remarkable that the win of Somersby was her first Grade 1 for seven years and it's great to see her firing at the top level again. Menorah advertised his jumping frailties once again when falling in the Lightning Novices' Chase on Town Moor. He made errors and only got as far as the third and his jumping will be tested much more rigorously in the Arkle for which he is 12/1. So, Philip Hobbs has plenty of work to do if he is to line up in March.Kid Cassidy won the race sporting earplugs and a net muzzle (which is used on horses that pull very hard in their races). His temperament doesn't make you think the cauldron of Cheltenham will suit, although AP McCoy thinks he could hunt him around to settle him as he's a very good horse. He's 20/1 with Sky Bet if you're prepared to take the risk.
Onto this weekend's racing and we have to keep everything crossed that the jumps fixtures beat the cold snap. Sandown covered their course earlier in the week, but unfortunately their meeting was cancelled on Friday.
There is racing scheduled at Wetherby with the Towton Novices' Chase the feature. The race quite often throws up a decent staying chaser for the future with the likes of Mr Mulligan, Halcon Genelardais and Ollie Magern successful in the past. Sue Smith's Mr Moonshine is on a retrieval mission after disappointing in the Feltham at Kempton over Christmas. He was too keen too early there and has been working well since. If all goes well here he will head to the RSA Chase at Cheltenham. He should face some stiff competition in this three mile one furlong contest.
Nicky Henderson has Mossley entered (he also has an entry at Sandown) and Nicholls has entered Sir Alex Ferguson's horse Picture This. I think it's worth taking a chance on Mr Moonshine.
Racing in Ireland isn't expected to be effected by the frost and they race on Sunday at Punchestown. There aren't too many entries in the Tied Cottage Chase but a couple of the top two-mile chasers should take each other on as we have a clash of the champion chasers to look forward to.
There is very little between 2010 winner Big Zeb and reigning champ Sizing Europe with both reported in great form ahead of this Grade 2. Sizing Europe is the younger horse by a year but at 10 and 11 they should both still be in their prime. Both horses will have to face ground that isn't ideal (it's officially heavy at the time of writing and with the frost covers down that will make it more holding). Their current Champion Chase prices with Sky Bet are 7/4 Sizing Europe and 7/2 Big Zeb. I'm really looking forward to the clash but genuinely can't nail my colours to the mast!
Mr Moonshine in the Towton Novices' Chase