Well, that got the pulse racing for the National Hunt season, did it not? Three days of top drawer sport on Cleeve Hill drew to a close on Sunday late afternoon, and left us with acquaintances and re-acquaintances: new friends and old.
But of these primarily Premier League players in November, which of them are likely to be contesting top honours come middle March and the Festival 2012? That's what I set out to do by comparing the Open meeting race records with those of their Festival counterparts, and looking for synergies, disparities and anything else I reckon is worthy of mention.
So, with our objective set, let's see what we can discern...
We'll start with the quirky cross country chase, which may not be to everyone's tastes but, along with the December version run at the International meeting, has proved instructive with regards to the Festival Glenfarclas Cross Country chase winner... though not in a conventional manner.
In the last five years, all of the Festival Cross Country Chase winners ran in either the November or December 'rehearsals'. But only one of them won, and even that one - Garde Champetre - was beaten in November before winning in December.
Last year, Sizing Australia was third in the November race before winning at 13/2 in March; in 2010, A New Story was 7th in December's trial before winning at 25/1 (!); 2009 saw the aforementioned GC (Garde Champetre) atop the GC (general classement) having run up in the November version; in 2008, the same horse fell in December's race before winning March's main event; and, in 2007, Heads Onthe Ground could only muster a bronze medal performance in December prior to a gold in the early Spring.
So, the message is clear: course form is imperative, but not (at all) necessarily course winning form. Look for experience and look for value when considering the runs of Festival protagonists who raced either in the November or December cross country trials, and don't be afraid to counter the conventional view.
Next up was the Sharp Novices' Hurdle, a two miler which is seen as a Supreme Novices' Hurdle trial. Last year, Cue Card won this and was sent off the 7/4 jolly for the opening race of the 2011 Festival. He managed a respectable fourth, but was no match for Al Ferof, who started out by falling when odds on in Cheltenham's December meeting two mile novice hurdle race.
Unfortunately for Steps To Freedom, impressive victor here, no winner in recent years has gone on to score at the Festival the following Spring. Whilst that doesn't mean it cannot be done, of course, I would be apprehensive about accepting odds of 10/1 on such an eventuality.
The final race on Friday was the intriguingly named Steel Plate and Sections Novices' Chase, which has been a fine springboard for Cheltenham winners of the future. In 2007, Imperial Commander won but injury caused him to miss his intended Festival engagement: the RSA Chase. He then went and won the Paddy Power Gold Cup at the same meeting in 2008, prior to landing the Gold Cup itself at the 2009 Festival.
In 2009, Weird Al won, but he was another who wouldn't make the Festival that season. When he did line up, in March of this year, he was pulled up in the Gold Cup.
Time For Rupert won last year here, and then went off the 7/4 favourite in the RSA Chase, only to be beaten into fifth with a suspected burst blood vessel.
Going further back, Denman won here, and in the RSA Chase, and in the Gold Cup.
So the messages may be these: Grands Crus, this year's winner after his only serious rival, Cue Card, came down, is likely to go for a shorter race: most probably the Jewson (2m5f) race.
Time For Rupert, on the comeback trail and beaten by Weird Al at Wetherby, may be worth a speculative punt, given a) the lop-sided look of the Gold Cup market (5/2 Long Run, 14/1 bar one) and b) the record of Steel Plate winners going on to Gold Cup glory two years after the former.
In fact, extending out that logic, and with Grands Crus' known stamina from his hurdling career, a cheeky fiver on that horse to win the 2013 Gold Cup might not be worst wild wager one's ever struck!
The opening juvenile novices' hurdle on Saturday was won in good style by Hinterland, a Paul Nicholls' French import making his British debut. This was the same race in which Nicholls introduced another French import, Sam Winner, last term. That chap ended up a creditable fourth in the Triumph Hurdle at the Festival, beaten by a later-arriving stablemate in Zarkandar.
And that is the key here. Whilst both Katchit (2006) and Katarino (1998) took this en route to Triumph Hurdle honours, it is generally the case that we have yet to see the Triumph winner race this side of the pond. Zarkandar for instance made his first hurdles start in late February in Kempton's Adonis Hurdle, the pre-eminent trial for the Festival race three weeks later.
In 2010, Soldatino had his first UK start in the Adonis, having raced in France beforehand. 2009 winner Zaynar at least had the common courtesy to race in December of the previous year in Britain, having also been a graduate from the French provinces.
2008's winner didn't race before 29th December the previous year, and so it goes on.
Essentially, whilst Hinterland is clearly a good horse and one to follow, he is unlikely to be the best come March. The best so far, yes. But he probably won't be the best when the tapes go up on Festival Friday's first frenetic foray.
Galaxy Rock was a facile winner of the staying handicap chase and whilst connections stopped short of nominating him as an Aintree type, I've had a small ante-post for bet for the Grand National, just in case. The price, 33/1, and the ease of his victory here were too much to resist.
The Paddy Power Gold Cup, the feature race of the meeting, is a bit of a conundrum, with more winners having already won at the Festival (L'Antartique, Great Endeavour) than subsequently winning at the Festival (Imperial Commander). However, Exotic Dancer did go on to finish second and third in Gold Cup's at the Spring meeting.
It's difficult to draw any firm conclusions on the contest with regards to the Festival and, perhaps fittingly, far better to enjoy the race as an end in itself rather than a means to an end four months later.
Paul Nicholls has farmed the November Novices' Steeple Chase in recent seasons, and his Tataniano and Ghizao were well fancied for the Festival itself. However, as it transpired, the former bypassed the meeting and won a Grade 1 at the Aintree Festival a few weeks later; and the latter only managed to blunder his way into fifth place.
Perhaps taking a shortish price about Al Ferof, for all that he is a Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner and ran second in the Cheltenham Bumper the year before, is not such a smart move after all. If you disagree, there's plenty of 7/1 available.
The Greatwood was won in fine style by Brampour, who bounded away from a competitive field under his 17-year-old jockey, Harry Derham. Many have been quick to crab the form, saying it was a sub-standard renewal and that Brampour is not Champion Hurdle class.
Well, let's look at the raw figures before we jump on (or off) the bandwagon.
Firstly, Brampour raced off an official figure of 149. That is just two pounds lower than Menorah won off last year. Menorah was subsequently sent off the 3/1 second favourite in the Champion Hurdle and not beaten too far in fifth.
In 2009, Khyber Kim won off 143, and went on to be second in the Champion Hurdle. In 2007 and 2008, the winners were rated 137 or less (although the 2007 winner, Sizing Europe, was sent off favourite for the Champion Hurdle before disappointing, and subsequently won the Arkle and the Champion Chase in 2010 and 2011).
In 2006, the ill-fated Detroit City won this off 148, before being sent off the 6/4 favourite in the Champion Hurdle.
In other words, whilst it is true that Brampour would need to improve from where he is to challenge the likes of Hurricane Fly, it is far from impossible to envisage that one being injured and missing the Festival (as he has done in the past).
Moreover, there is little evidence in the book thus far that gives Spirit Son, Zarkandar and company the beating of Brampour. The former was rated 149 (the same as Brampour's winning mark in the Greatwood) and the latter 154 (surely less than Brampour's mark when he is reassessed).
Brampour came from a long way off the pace, and was value for further than the winning margin over horses in second and third who were professionally ridden and receiving in excess of half a stone. He went up ten pounds for winning a competitive Listed handicap hurdle at Ascot, and he'll have to take another hike off the back of this.
Calling Moon Dice unlucky is throwing money away in my opinion. Sure, he couldn't find a way through, but let's be clear: Brampour came from further back. Brampour finished further in front even after Moon Dice got the split. And Olofi was finishing better than Moon Dice. In other words, I don't believe Moon Dice would have won under any circumstances in this race.
Hurricane Fly is rated 172 and, if he turns up, will be very hard to beat. Brampour, for all that he will be a five year old and that Nicholls thinks he has better in the yard, is at least reasonably priced at 25/1 in my opinion. The Bula is next on the agenda at the December meeting here, and there will be no 25/1 left should he clear those hurdles in the style he did on Sunday. Obviously, that's a step up in class, but this chap has earned it.
Rangitoto won the Intermediate Hurdle - backed from 11/2 to 9/4 in the process, and landing the seemingly ambitious shout of William Hill's PR rep, Kate Miller, in the process - with something in hand at the line.
Never going better than when storming up the run in, there was something of the Denman in this monster of a horse. Wearing the same Paul Barber silks as that old warrior, this fellow will now go chasing, and quotes of 25/1 for a horse who has yet to publicly clear one of the bigger impediments may not be as daft as they initially appear.
Certainly the RSA requires abundant stamina, and the way Rangitoto bludgeoned his way out of a mid-race flat spot strongly implied that twelve miles in a quag would be right up his alley.
Horses like Grands Crus (doubtful runner in the race) and Bobs Worth (very good animal, might be more finesse than pure guts) look less well made for the RSA at first glance, to my eye at least.
The Hyde Novices Hurdle won by Fingal Bay is a good trial for the staying novice hurdles at the Festival. But the problem with this chap is second guessing which event he'll end up aimed at. What is beyond doubt is that he's a very, very fine prospect and, despite demolishing the second last flight, he was still on the bridle and able to also demolish some justly aspirant opposition.
When Philip Hobbs, a man who has looked after the likes of Rooster Booster, Detroit City and Menorah, says this might be the best horse he's had, it is sensible to take note. He'll be well fancied wherever he shows up at the Festival, with the 2m5f race (the Neptune) perhaps the likelier target. 10/1 would be great if you were sure that he was being aimed at that. As it is, you're looking at something like 6/1 when you factor in the uncertainty... not tempting for me at this point.
And there you have it.
There were trials aplenty across the Irish Sea at Navan as well, and there will be more this weekend at Punchestown, when the likes of Hurricane Fly, Thousand Stars and my favourite race mare of the moment, Unaccompanied (2nd in the Triumph, won the geegeez.co.uk Alleged Stakes in the Spring), are entered in the Morgiana Hurdle.
Yes, I love this time of year... 😀
P.s. which horse(s) did you take out of the weekend as beasts to follow, either at the Festival or just generally?