It was a weekend where the headline writers and Cheltenham executive got their prayers answered. Hurricane Fly and Big Buck's proved themselves every bit as good as when last seen, and both ready to defend their hurdling championships come middlemarch.
Elsewhere, dreams were shattered for many (Baby Mix, Broadbackbob, Unaccompanied), reinstated for a few (The Giant Bolster, Midnight Chase), and rudely awoken by harsh reality for those who probably already knew their fate (Tidal Bay, Diamond Harry, Poquelin).
So what are the pointers to take from a bumper weekend of top class action on both sides of the Irish Sea, as we look inexorably towards Cheltenham and March's Festival?
Let's take it from the top...
The opening juvenile hurdle promised to inform us on the Triumph Hurdle hierarchy but, in the end, served only to confuse and bewilder. Grumeti was the winner, albeit via the stewards' room, from a Nicholls' 'fourth string', Pearl Dawn under Ruby Walsh.
Pearl Dawn was brought into the race with a finely timed run, and bested his more famous rival by a short head at the line. However, in so doing, he'd cut across the second and, in the eyes of the stewards, caused enough interference for them to reverse the placings.
Personally, I always struggle with these situations, as when Jacqueline Quest was denied victory in the 1000 Guineas. But I defer to those who know, and am assured that justice was done.
In any event, the fallout for me is this:
1. A horse that has only actually come home first in one of three hurdle events shouldn't really be favourite for the Triumph. Yes, he was unlucky when he fell; yes, he was 'cruelly' denied victory on Saturday. But... winners win. No excuses. Not for me.
2. Paul Nicholls now knows exactly where he stands with his juvies, and the one he unleashes in the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton will be the one to be on.
3. Baby Mix ran no sort of race. Pulled too hard, jumped terribly, and gives serious instability to the form here.
I'd be very surprised if the Triumph Hurdle winner ran on Saturday, and even more so if it was at Cheltenham.
Bless The Wings was an exuberant winner of the novices' handicap chase, and if he jumps as well in the Centenary Handicap Chase (or whatever it will be called this time around), he'll have chances.
But he cannot expect so many of his rivals to throw their chances away with careless errors, and this effort will cost him his attractive handicap mark for sure. He'll likely run, and run well, in the Centenary, but something - probably trained by either Venetia Williams or Ferdy Murphy - will have hidden their light under a bushel better.
The next race saw one of the most taking performances of weekend where taking performances were a theme. The Giant Bolster has been called many things, mainly in relation to his 'can't jump, won't jump' attitude. However, a pre-race interview with his owner revealed that much schooling work had been done, and the name Yogi Breisner was uttered. The jumping guru has clearly worked his oracle once more, as The Giant Bolster was almost foot perfect, despite the intimations of commentator Richard Hoiles that he bungled half of them.
I thought Hoiles was extremely unfair to TGB, who did make one error in an electric round of front-running fluent leaping. At the line, he's put seventeen lengths between himself and the rock solid 2,5f Cheltenham chase yardstick, Poquelin, who ran his usual 'honest as the day is long' race.
Poquelin was spotting TGB a stone or thereabouts, but it would be hard to argue that the verdict would have been any different off level weights. Indeed, level weights is how they'd match up were the Ryanair to enter the Cheltenham conundrum. There is, though, one small issue with that: The Giant Bolster isn't entered in the race!
I'm not sufficiently up on whether a horse can be entered later at a premium but, if that is the case, then surely this is the route for him, rather than the Festival Plate. That latter race is a handicap, in which he'd highly likely lug top weight, plus he be in amongst twenty-five rivals and would struggle much more I feel to get the lead he so relished here.
Under similar circumstances, TGB is a horse to follow. He's likely to clout a few fences in any quest for glory, but this effort - in a very fast time - marks him out as an extremely talented beast.
Poquelin for his part can be expected to make a bid in the Ryanair, but he's gone there in far better form in seasons past and been seen off comprehensively. He's one of a number for whom the writing looks to be on the wall.
And then came the feature of the day. Captain Chris, Tidal Bay, Diamond Harry, Midnight Chase and the rest. Gold Cup trip. Proper trial. Sort of (no Irish, no Kauto Star, no Long Run, etc).
Captain Chris has inexplicably been favourite all day, despite being the most obvious non-stayer since I contemplated running a marathon. In the event, it wasn't stamina that scuppered him but bizarre jumping. To my untutored eye, he jiggered his back and was rightly pulled up.
None of this was of any consequence to Midnight Chase, a beast who adores Cheltenham like I adore Guinness. He got out in front, and stayed out in front. Leaping from fence to fence, allowing Little Josh to get close but not too close, and then kicking on from the turn in.
Tidal Bay was his closest challenger but never threatened to usurp the Prince of Cheltenham Chases (but not the King, alas for connections). Today was a day when connections of Captain Chris, Tidal Bay and Diamond Harry must all have called time on their Gold Cup aspirations, as they were found wanting to a rival who only finished fifth in the Gold Cup last year.
Midnight Chase himself will try to make all in the showpiece in six weeks time, and he'll give punters a bloody good run for their money, without I fear ultimately troubling the judge. Great performance, all the more so for carrying not just my cash but also the combined weight of the Stat of the Day followers fortunes!!
But still there was much to follow on a card that had more players than an amateur dramatics convention. It was the turn of the staying novices next, and Broadbackbob - from the Henderson yard - was a very warm order. Unbeaten in two lesser events prior to lining up here, he jumped a little stickily in places, and was never going to be Batonnier, a horse who has been faced by stiffer competition than his shorter priced rival.
Batonnier traveled very well off a strongish pace, and looks a contender for either the Neptune or Albert Bartlett, whichever trainer Alan King fires him at. Of course, in those contests he may have to face either or both of Fingal Bay and Boston Bob, and those will offer a more robust challenge that Broadbackbob.
Hurdling retained centre stage as one of National Hunt racing's greatest stars, Big Buck's, strutted his stuff once more. Taking his unbeaten sequence to fifteen, he provided a few heard in mouth moments for punters who traded their fours for some ones (his odds of 1-4), especially the William Hill player who reputedly cashed a £256,000 wager.
Fair play, but you'll never get the stains out of those trousers!
In the finish, it was plain sailing, but there was at least a half furlong after they'd turned in when it looked as though BB might not quite get to Dynasyte, who ran a stonker.
Dynaste looks a strong contender for the World Hurdle podium, but with Big Buck's and Oscar Whisky in opposition, it's a tough ask for him. And it's impossible for any sane individual to suggest that there is a horse in training who can beat Big Buck's in the World Hurdle if he runs his race.
And it was hurdling to conclude the card as well, with a competitive looking handicap hurdle. There were also at least two dubious rides in here, but let's deal with the winner first.
Tom George's Module ran on very well and landed a few nice bets in the process, on his first UK start. I think he's come over from George's satellite yard in France, and he knows what he's got when it comes to comparative form between France and UK. (I wish I did!)
But it's the horses in behind that I want to talk about. Firstly, Hinterland - a short enough favourite - was never put into the race by Ruby Walsh. He still had eight horses in front of him at the final hurdle and did well to finish third.
I'm convinced he's being aimed at the Fred Winter, and this was a most definite handicap-protecting performance. It will be instructive to see if the handicapper takes the same view as me, and mullers the horse's mark as it deserves to be after this non-trier effort. If he doesn't, I'll be supporting him in the Fred Winter, for sure.
The other dodgepot was the winner's stable mate, Sivola de Sivola, who was given an 'eye-catching' ride to finish fourth. Again, there are Festival hurdle events (the County, most likely) for which he may well be attractively perched. He's one to keep on side, as he is clearly capable of significantly more than he showed here. Connections will have been delighted!
Elsewhere on Saturday, Menorah actually endeared himself to me more by falling than by winning up at Doncaster. As perverse as that may sound, this chap has a characteristic that the very best two mile chasers have: he hurdles his fences.
I recognise that might sound a bit ridiculous, but if you look at the record of the likes of Moscow Flyer and Big Zeb, you'll see that the big IF heading into Cheltenham for them was actually their form figures of 1F1F.
Am I saying Menorah can win the Arkle? Well, yes and no. In my opinion, like those two fine beasts (only one of which won the Arkle, Big Zeb having been kept at home a while longer), Menorah conserves energy in the style of an Arkle winner, and he has plenty of top drawer track form over hurdles (Supreme Novices' winner, Greatwood Hurdle winner, etc).
The fact that he's now a longer price means I'm taking a saver on my Al Ferof / Peddlers Cross investment, and the only horse that can beat me - I believe - is Sprinter Sacre. For reasons I've outlined elsewhere, I'm prepared to let that happen.
In Ireland, the Mullins bandwagon rolled on as Sir Des Champs continued his winning ways over fences. True, it was a relatively weak race. But he won 'like an odds on favourite should' as Thommo would unfortunately say, despite not being an odds on favourite for this contest (he was even money).
This was the son of excellent sire Robin Des Champs' sixth win on the bounce. That sextet includes the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Hurdle at Cheltenham as a novice, and two Grade 2's over fences. Clearly, he's a player over this sort of trip and deserves to be close to favouritism for the Jewson Novices over the same distance - though different obstacles - as the Martin Pipe.
He's a horse that is impossible to crab from a Cheltenham perspective, with Festival winning form, and a progressive profile both before and since (he was heavily backed that day at Cheltenham). 8/1 is about the best you can get and, if he's being fired at this race, that's a price to be interested in. I say 'if' because he probably has RSA and handicap options as well.
Surely, though, this is the optimum trip for him at this stage of his career. He's a horse that, should he continue to progress, might present himself as a Gold Cup candidate next season. Very exciting prospect.
The Boylesports Hurdle on the same card was a belting race, and was won by a good horse in Citizenship... But for Cheltenham punters, the 'juice' was in behind. I'm not entirely sure where in behind, but true form students will be looking for those beasts who raced out back, and stayed on to a midfield finishing position... especially if trained by a wily fox.
Here's a couple who could be of interest from a County Hurdle perspective: Peak Raider (never nearer than ninth and from a plotting stable in Thomas Carberry), Plan A (fourth in last year's Fred Winter, ran a nice trial here).
Sunday at Leopardstown was the most eagerly awaited affair of a very bright weekend of jump racing. Despite a horribly soggy afternoon, the return of 'The Fly' was well enough subscribed. The precipitated upon punters were not to be disappointed, but there was sport both before and after that, as I'll now relate.
First up, it was the turn of the novice speed fencers in the Irish Arkle. Flemenstar fair dotted up in the style of a good horse. His problem is the irritating feeling that he beat a lot of beasts which ran in the style of bad horses.
The Irish Arkle hasn't thrown the winner of the British Arkle for many a moon - Moscow Flyer was the last - and I'm afraid two good miles in a ppeat bog does not translate well to the undulating road of Cheltenham's unofficial good to firm on Cheltenham Tuesday... Flemenstar is clearly talented, but I'd not even consider him beating the others I've mentioned higher up this post... even if he runs (which he probably won't, for the self same reason mentioned - state of the ground).
As if the weather couldn't have got any worse, at just about Chinese dentist appointment o'clock (tooth hurt-y, oh dear), a Hurricane blew into and out of Leopardstown.
This was the big day and, after eight months, there were plenty of negative vibes about 'needing the run'. 4/7 opening show soon became 4/5. Like the horse knew! He absolutely murdered them in the most disdainful of ways, and is going to be plenty hard enough to beat in the Champion Hurdle.
In truth, the form is questionable, with clear chief danger, Unaccompanied, putting in a rare stinker. Regular readers will know the affection I hold for this mare, and yesterday was not her running. Not even close.
Oscar Wells was next best, despite his connections suggesting conditions would not suit. That lends itself to the prospect that this wasn't as good a performance as it looked.
Here's what I think from a punting stance: whilst I'd struggle to oppose the Fly, I couldn't possibly countenance wagering him at between 4/6 and evens. The Robin van Persie of racing (brilliant when fit) still has to get to the West country and, if/when he does, he's unlikely to be much of a shorter price.
If you can get non runner no bet, treat yourself if you like. Otherwise, wait for the day.
Let me repeat: he won this running backwards, and it is very hard to crab the effort. But he is a fragile horse and this form is open to question, due to the state of the ground and the limp effort from the clear second market choice. Caution advised.
Finally, on a weekend of saliva-spraying sport, Boston Bob's game win in the Grade 2 was almost unheralded after his stable mate sent all the journo's scurrying for the 'hold the back page' hotlines to the headlines.
But this was an attritional display from another Cheltenham contender. He was asked to scrap, and he was happy so to do. I do find it difficult to quantify this performance in the context of either of the Cheltenham novices, and I'd love to see him race so well on a sounder surface. If he can, and he faces off against Fingal (Bay), then that will be a tumultuous tussle, to be sure.
I am now approaching spontaneous combustion when it comes to the Cheltenham banquets of middle March. And if the last few weekends have been mostly uninformative, then this one has fair spurted Festival fancies forth. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrringiton!!! 😀
p.s. I'm away for the next fortnight (training in Newmarket this week - not as a jockey! - and skiing in Bulgaria next, so please be patient if you try to contact me. Neither place is blessed with abundant wifi... 🙁 )