National Hunt racing has a new superstar after Thistlecrack's sensational performance in the King George VI Chase.
Colin Tizzard's monster is now an odds-on favourite for the Gold Cup in his first season of chasing having lit up a gloomy Kempton Park on Boxing Day. Layers and rivals alike know that only an accident can prevent last year's World Hurdle winner landing Cheltenham’s Blue Riband event in March, but he'll surely be no shorter than he is now on the day and he's got to get there yet, so he makes no appeal from a betting perspective at this stage.
Thistlecrack might have ended the Gold Cup prospects of stablemate Cue Card, but his main challenger at the festival could still come from his own back yard after Native River toyed with his Welsh National rivals under Richard Johnson. Native River was an unconsidered 40-1 chance for the Gold Cup prior to his Hennessy success but two races later and he’s a single figure price to make a big impact in his first Gold Cup.
As for Cue Card, he had his heart broken at Kempton and it looks like connections are now leaning towards dropping back in trip for the Ryanair Chase, a race he won by nine lengths in 2013.
Another championship race that looks sewn up is the Queen Mother Champion Chase which will surely go the way of Douvan who barely turned a hair when winning the Grade One Paddy Power Cashcard Chase at Leopardstown on December 27. Top-class rivals in the two-mile chase division might be thin on the ground but Rich Ricci’s star is in a different league to anything he races against and will almost certainly be much shorter than even his current price of 1-2 providing he gets to Prestbury Park in one piece.
Ricci’s famous pink silks were also carried to victory at Leopardstown by Vroum Vroum Mag who wasn’t quite as imperious in winning the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle by a length-and-a-quarter but the second-best mare in training has any number of possible targets at Cheltenham and her eventual destination largely depends on where Annie Power is in the second half of the season.
Talking of Annie Power, the Champion Hurdle looks a minefield for punters at the moment with the top two in the market, Faugheen and Annie Power, both on the missing list so far this season. Yanworth staked his claim for the biggest two-mile hurdle prize of the season when picking off The New One and My Tent Or Yours in the Grade One Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day. Alan King’s charge, a general 5-1 third favourite in most lists now, will be staying on strongly up the hill but whether he’s got the toe to keep tabs on the likes of Faugheen or Annie Power on ground that could be quicker than ideal is another question.
Petit Mouchoir threw his hat into the Champion Hurdle ring with a dominant display in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown on December 29 but hot favourite Nichols Canyon wasn’t at his best on that occasion and the winner probably needs some of the big guns to not show up if he’s to have realistic win prospects on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.
Gordon Elliott worked his magic on Outlander who turned the John Durkan form around with Djakadam to lead home a one-two for the stable in the Lexus Chase, but realistic Gold Cup prospects are still arguably greater for Djakadam despite the seemingly negative reaction to his defeat.
The Arkle Chase is shaping up to be one of the highlights of Cheltenham week but don’t be fooled into thinking this race is all about the potential rematch between last season's Supreme Novices’ Hurdle one-two Altior and Min, who both eased home in their respective races over the Christmas period. Yorkhill will be a threat to both if sticking to this route, but the 12-1 about Buveur D’air looks cracking each-way value at this stage in a race that might only be offering two places on the day. J P McManus’s six-year-old has impressed with his accurate jumping on both starts so far and his Warwick success on New Year’s Eve came in a decent contest. He’s a high-class novice chaser.
Defi Du Seuil confirmed himself as the outstanding juvenile hurdler this side of the Irish sea when sauntering to a 13-length success in Chepstow’s Grade One Future Champions Finale Hurdle, but the picture over the water isn’t quite as clear cut, with the score between Landofhopeandglory and Bapaume now one apiece after the latter landed the Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardtsown on Boxing Day.
The RSA Chase now has a clear 5-1 market leader after Bellshill posted a thoroughly likeable display in the Shannon Airport Novices’ Chase Leopardstown on Boxing Day despite the heavy ground being far from ideal. Graham Wylie’s Grade One-winning hurdler looks a potential star over fences and he’ll improve again for going up to three miles on better ground. The RSA Chase looks tailor-made for him.
Bellshill’s biggest rival come March may still turn out to be Might Bite who had the Grade One Kauto Star Novices’ Chase all wrapped up when crashing out at the final fence. If his confidence hasn’t been dented too much he remains a top prospect in this division. The fortuitous winner of the race, Royal Vacation, isn’t in the same league as the winner at this stage.