By Andy Stephens
Rarely has there ever been a weekend littered with quite so many Cheltenham Festival clues.
The new two-day Dublin Winter Festival at Leopardstown, with its seven Grade One races and fiercely competitive handicaps, seems certain to have a huge bearing on events in mid-March. But that was not all, with Festival aspirants also put through their paces at Sandown, Musselburgh and Wetherby.
No fewer than a quarter of the horses who head the betting for races at The Festival were in action. Who were hits, who were misses? And, perhaps most importantly, did the bookmakers get their sums right?
BLACKBOW - HIT:
The €75,000 Grade Two bumper that concluded the action at Leopardstown on Saturday had stacks of quality about it and Blackbow, who had previously shown a good attitude to win on his debut, won with authority.
Sent off the well-backed 11-4 favourite, the Willie Mullins-trained five-year-old travelled well and quickened up smartly to pull clear with Rhinestone.
Mullins confirmed afterwards that the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham would be Blackbow’s next port of call and the 8-1 offered by Betfair looks big. Some firms quote him as short as 4-1 to give the trainer a ninth win in the race.
BUVEUR D’AIR - HIT:
We learnt nothing new about Buveur D’Air on Saturday but he earned £17,000 for his Sandown stroll and it will have served to help keep him ticking over.
Nicky Henderson indicated the champion hurdler may need a racecourse gallop to keep the weight off him but he will head to The Festival having had an easy campaign and with by far the best form. It is little wonder that most layers have waved the white flag and quote him at 2-5.
CLAIMANTAKINFORGAN - MISS:
Henderson saddled three hotpots at Musselburgh on Sunday but was on the mark with only one of them.
Claimantakinforgan was sent off 4-7 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle Trial but lacked the necessary gears and could finish only third to Beyond The Dreams, who looks more an Aintree type.
It could well be that Claimantakinforgan will show more over farther on better ground, for all he did not look short of gears at Ascot last time, but waiting for him in the Ballymore is likely to be the monster that is Samcro. More of him later.
CYRNAME and TERREFORT - HITS:
Nicky Henderson reiterated on Luck On Sunday how moderately Terrefort works at Seven Barrows but the five-year-old is no slouch on the racecourse, as his defeat of Cyrname in a compelling renewal of the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown confirmed.
The pair locked horns some way out and impressed with their jumping and attitudes in the heat of a prolonged battle. Neither did anything wrong and were separated by a neck at the line.
The bookmakers seemed surprisingly underwhelmed, with Paddy Power quoting Terrefort at 16-1 for the JLT and Cyrname being a general 25-1.
I’d resist the former as connections have yet to commit to Cheltenham and believe soft ground is probably important to him but Cyrname looks a massive price given his level of ability plus the fact the JLT lacks any outstanding contender.
DEFI DU SEUIL - MISS:
At the end of Defi Du Seuil's exceptional juvenile campaign, there was one simple question: was he a Champion Hurdle or Arkle winner in waiting?
That seems a long time ago, now, after he followed a lacklustre return at Ascot with a tame effort in the Irish Champion Hurdle, trailing in seventh after being friendless in the betting.
He is a young horse with plenty of time to recapture his sparkle, but his efforts this campaign sum up a frustrating time for Philip Hobbs. He is out to 40-1 to win the Champion Hurdle, having been 8-1 last spring.
DORTMUND PARK - MISS:
Dortmund Park looked like he was going to enhance his claims for either the Ballymore or Albert Bartlett when travelling strongly between the last two flights in the Grade One contest that opened the Dublin Winter Festival on Saturday.
When push came to shove, though, he went backwards and on this evidence he will not be good enough for whatever race he contests.
EDWULF - HIT:
It seems fanciful but Edwulf will line up in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup with prospects of winning a year after it seemed certain he had lost his life at The Festival.
Edwulf was running a big race in the National Hunt Chase when he lost all coordination and collapsed to the turf after the final fence. He was down for half an hour and we all feared the worst but the vets managed to save him.
On Sunday, Edwulf showed all his powers had been restored by getting up close home to land the Unibet Irish Gold Cup. He had been 100-1 in the morning but the form makes sense with two solid yardsticks, Outlander and Djakadam, chasing him home.
The nine-year-old is a general 25-1 for the Gold Cup and connections of Might Bite will probably not lose much sleep. But Edwulf will stay every yard and Cheltenham is full of unlikely tales.
ESPOIR D’ALLEN - MISS:
Previously unbeaten in five starts, Espoir D’Allen was sent off at 4-5 for the Grade One Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle but had his bubble burst.
All looked to be going to plan when he hit the front three out but he could not put the race to bed and faltered before the last. He ended up being beaten more than 20 lengths and, having been 7-1 for the JCB Triumph Hurdle before the race, is now available at 20-1 with Boylesports.
FAUGHEEN - MISS:
Faugheen’s three runs this season can be summarised as The Good, The Bad and The Average.
He had apparently been working with all his old zest before the BHP Irish Champion Hurdle on Saturday but was unable to repel Supasundae, a quality horse but one who has previously looked at his most effective over farther.
Faugheen was pushed out to 8-1 for the Champion Hurdle by Boylesports and Stan James. The ten-year-old will find the younger legs of Buveur D’Air hard to handle but, while he is clearly no longer invincible, still has prospects of making the frame.
FOOTPAD - HIT:
Most firms make Footpad odds-on to win the Arkle after he made it 3-3 over fences with his fluent win in the Irish equivalent at Leopardstown on Saturday, although you can still get Evens with Betfair.
His jumping has been superb and that will count for plenty on the opening day of the Festival but while he has to be considered a “Hit” I’m not convinced he has the chance the market indicates (see Petit Mouchoir).
KILLULTAGH VIC - HIT:
Is KiIlultagh Vic the horse to end the Gold Cup hoodoo of Willie Mullins? Victory in the blue riband has eluded the trainer, who has saddled the runner-up in it on six occasions.
Killultagh Vic gives him renewed hope because he looked likely to win the Irish version on Sunday only to fall at the final fence having just nosed to the front.
Clearly, he is over his injury problems and he has always looked a horse of untapped potential. The trip will pose a question mark but the track won’t as he won a handicap hurdle at The Festival in 2015.
He is as short as 8-1 in a place for the Gold Cup but Ladbrokes still go 16-1. In an open year, he cannot be that price on the day, can he?
MELON - MISS:
Looked the obvious one to cash in should Faugheen fluff his lines in the Irish Champion Hurdle but the usually strong traveller was in trouble some way out before plugging on to be fifth, beaten a dozen lengths.
It was undeniably disappointing - he had previously run My Tent Or Yours close at Cheltenham when conceding 6lb - but Betfair, Ladbrokes and Stan James may have overreacted in pushing him out to 20-1.
It might have been that Melon reacted badly to being equipped with a first-time hood. Perhaps the headgear will be swiftly removed next month.
MIN - HIT:
Min came of age on Saturday with his smooth success in the Coral Dublin Chase.
It was a race where there were no hiding places, thanks to Special Tiara setting a fearsome gallop, but Min was always moving sweetly and picked off the front-runner going to the last before easing clear.
The only time he has not finished first past the post was when splitting Altior and Buveur D’Air in the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (such as Supasundae and Petit Mouchoir behind) and he is now 3-1 for the Betway Champion Chase.
Min will be a bigger price if Altior shows his wellbeing at Newbury next week, while an on-song Douvan would also make life harder for him. He has no clouds hanging over him, though, and so the caution of the bookmakers is understandable.
MONALEE - HIT:
The Grade One Flogas Novice Chase at Leopardstown on Sunday was a tremendous spectacle, with a length and a half covering the first four home.
Monalee, far right in the picture, jumped superbly from the front and dug deep to land the spoils but, in common with Footpad, he is a "hit" who hardly represents much ante-post value with The Festival in mind.
He is no bigger than 6-1 for the RSA but, if you fancy him, then you have to also like the next three home.
MR ADJUDICATOR - HIT:
Willie Mullins saddled seven winners at the Dublin Winter Festival and was possibly unfortunate not to have even more.
Mr Adjudicator impressed with the way he pounced from off the pace and stayed on stoutly to beat Farclas (pair clear) and the Grade One Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle.
Raced only twice, he looks Ireland’s outstanding juvenile and he is a general 8-1 for the JCB Triumph Hurdle, though Betfair still offer 10-1.
OFF YOU GO - HIT:
The JP McManus-owned five-year-old has looked a different horse since being switched to handicaps and took his form to a new level with his victory in the 28-runner Cortal Hurdle at Leopardstown on Saturday.
He was winning off a mark of 123 and, for once, I doubt connections will grumble too much if the British handicapper allots him a mark that is up to a stone higher.
The lowest-rated horse in last year’s County Hurdle ran off 134 and the prospect of the still unexposed Off You Go running from near the foot of the weights suggests Betfair and William Hill may have blundered in quoting him at 14-1. Being by Presenting, good ground should also suit him.
OUR DUKE - MISS:
The money came for Our Duke in the minutes before the Irish Gold Cup but backers of the favourite would have already been shuffling uncomfortably when he pecked badly two out and lost all chance.
To his credit, he kept on again to finish fourth - but he owed that position to fallers and was beaten 16 lengths. His jumping does not look good enough to win a Gold Cup and he may be better off over long distances.
PETIT MOUCHOIR - HIT:
The grey finished in front of Footpad on three occasions over hurdles last season but was beaten five lengths by him in the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown on Saturday.
However, the 6-1 on offer about him turning the tables at Cheltenham looks chunky. He had been off since mid-October because of a setback and that, coupled with a couple of scruffy jumps early on, counted against him.
Davy Russell said afterwards the errors had “put manners on him” and what was encouraging was the way his mount stuck to his task when he was entitled to wilt. He will be sharper at Cheltenham and, if jumping better, there is unlikely to be much between the pair.
Owner Michael O’Leary implored us to “don’t believe the hype” earlier this season. Who was he trying to kid?
Samcro was in a different league to his rivals in the Grade One Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday and looks something out of the ordinary. He is a No 1 who could stay at the top of the charts for years.
The six-year-old chestnut was cantering all over his rivals some way out and the winning margin of five and a half lengths in no way illustrated his authority.
He is now unbeaten in seven starts and rightly favourite for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Ballymore. The latter race, over further, seems the preferred option and he is 4-6 in places, with the Evens that Betfair offer being the best price available.
SPECIAL TIARA - HIT:
Never got the credit he deserved for winning the Champion Chase last year - most were preoccupied with Douvan’s defeat - but a bold defence looks on the cards to judge by the way he motored along at the head of affairs for the bulk of the Coral Dublin Chase on Saturday.
Special Tiara proved a sitting duck for Min in the closing stages but the soft ground would have been against him and he will make them all go on a better surface next month at a track that brings out the best in him.
There are few better jumpers in the game and the 20-1 that Boylesports and BetBright offer against him at least making the frame for a fourth successive year is insulting.
SUPASUNDAE - HIT:
Supasundae just keeps getting better and better. He thrived last spring, when winning the Coral Cup and being narrowly denied by Yanworth over 3m at Aintree, and this term has continued on an upward trajectory - his decisive defeat of Faugheen on Saturday following a narrow reverse at the hands of Apple’s Jade.
He’s a stayer with speed and Robbie Power, his jockey, was excited by the way he jumped because, in the past, he has not been without blemish in that department.
Supasundae varies between 5-2 and 4-1 for the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle, depending on whether you want the non-runner no-bet concession. Jessica Harrington confirmed on Luck On Sunday that is definitely where he heads.
WE HAVE A DREAM - MISS:
Those who backed We Have A Dream down to 1-5 had a scare between the last two flights at Musselburgh on Sunday when he had to be woken up to assert.
Daryl Jacob said afterwards he was a bit fresh and that Nicky Henderson had backed off him a bit after his previous run but, all in all, it was an underwhelming performance. Bookmakers are divided - quoting between 4-1 and 8-1 for the Triumph Hurdle - but he is going to require a lot more at Prestbury Park.
YORKHILL - MISS:
At the start of the season everything and anything seemed possible for Yorkhill. Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase? His connections entertained the possibility of him being good enough to win any of the trio.
The wheels have fallen off, though, and after his lamentable run in the Coral Dublin Chase on Saturday there must be a chance we will not even see him at The Festival.
Before that he had trailed home last in the Christmas Chase, when apparently chipping a bone in his foreleg. All of a sudden, he is at least 16-1 for whatever race you want to back him for and he has a lot to prove.
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