Cheltenham Festival News
Thursday 5th December 2013
   
Cue Card and The New One Among The Early Season Movers As The Road To Cheltenham Reaches The Halfway Stage

With Christmas now just around the corner, it feels like an appropriate time to assess where we sit on the 'Road to the Cheltenham Festival'. It may only seem like the first fences of the 2013/2014 season have been jumped but the Festive period is always considered the mid-way stage of the season and most contenders for the National Hunt's major honours at the Festival in March have a run under their belts.

The arrival of the New Year is always a key point in the jumps calendar as attention turns towards the Cheltenham countdown with January the last month for the leading contenders to finalise their preparations with a severe lack of graded options in February.

A number of top class races have already taken place on both sides of the Irish Sea so far this season with a number of horses staking their early season Cheltenham claims with some impressive performances and here's a round up of the biggest market movers and eye-catchers thus far.

Cue Card
© Racehorse Photos

Cue Card
There is no doubt whatsoever that one of the stand-out horses of the season so far has been the brilliant Cue Card. The Colin Tizzard trained seven-year-old produced a career best performance at Haydock Park recently when he won the Betfair Chase in great style to thrust himself into the Gold Cup picture. Cue Card is already a dual Cheltenham Festival winner having won the Champion Bumper in 2010 and then the Ryanair Chase last season, but his biggest success could still be on the horizon if he continues to improve now upped in distance over fences. Connections have long thought that three miles would suit the horse and he justified that faith at Haydock as he jumped and travelled with great enthusiasm to slam a highly competitive field.

Cue Card was immediately installed as the favourite for the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day while the best price on offer about him winning the Gold Cup is now just 8/1. Among those behind Cue Card at Kempton were Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti, with both on the drift in the Gold Cup market as a consequence. Bobs Worth is of course the defending Gold cup hero but was outpaced by quicker horses, while Silviniaco Conti is now a double figured price for Cheltenham after his third place finish.

The New One
© Racehorse Photos

The New One
There has also been plenty of activity in the Champion Hurdle market with The New One well supported at this stage. The Nigel Twiston-Davies runner won the Neptune at Cheltenham last season but seems to have more than enough speed to become a major contender for the Champion Hurdle in March. He demolished Rock On Ruby at Kempton back in October which looks to be cracking form by any standard, even taking into account a little bit of rust for the Harry Fry trained in-mate. The New One was slashed for the Champion Hurdle after that Kempton success with Ladbrokes currently going 3/1 favourite about him winning the first championship race of the meeting.

My Tent Or Yours also looks to be a realistic Champion Hurdle contender this season following his win in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle at the end of November. He quickened up well for AP McCoy in the colours of JP McManus that day and is subsequently the 9/2 second favourite behind The New One.

Jezki
© Caroline Norris

Jezki
Another horse that carried the famous McManus yellow and green colours to victory in the hands of McCoy is Jezki, who has won twice over in Ireland in solid fashion and although he will need to prove it in better company before the Festival, he has done nothing wrong so far and should not be ignored in the ante-post betting and AP may well have a tough decision to make before the 11th March about which to ride as the Jessica Harrington runner is currently an 8/1 chance.

That leading trio for the Champion Hurdle must all still beat the defending champ though with Hurricane Fly still in the mix for Willie Mullins after he won yet a record breaking 17th Grade One last month. He won the Morgiana Hurdle in decent style and he could yet still be a massive price for a third Champion Hurdle crown with 13/2 on offer with Coral at the moment.

The novice Chasing division is looking as wide open as ever at this stage and no horse has yet stamped their authority on any of the three major races at the Festival for new chaser. That is reflected by the fact that Champagne Fever is, quite remarkably, the current favourite for the Arkle, the Jewson and the RSA Chase at Cheltenham after he won on his chasing debut at Punchestown last month. That win came over 2m4f but his long term target is far from set in stone with his past form coming over two miles and his future likely to lie over further, as he gets older.

Champagne Fever
© Caroline Norris

Champagne Fever
The RSA Chase is of particular interest at this stage of the winter with the ante-post market looking about as clear as mud after a number of interesting performances. As well as Champagne Fever, Wonderful Charm (14/1), Don Cossack (14/1), Just A Par (14/1), Ballycasey (14/1) and Smad Place (14/1) have all won novice chases this season and are open to further improvement before March but as it stands, punters and bookmakers are currently left scratching their heads as they look for the likely winner of the RSA.

Ladbrokes

One horse who did slightly disappoint on his first start of the season was At Fishers Cross who came in last of four in the Long Distance Hurdle during Newbury's Hennessy meeting. The Rebecca Curtis runner had been fighting for World Hurdle favouritism prior to his Newbury re-appearance but after a poor round of jumping, he was unable to land a blow on eventual winner, Celestial Halo. At Fishers Cross won the Albert Bartlett last season and should improve for the run but his jumping will need to be better to compete at World Hurdle level, for which he can now be backed at 6/1 for with most firms.

Royal Irish Hussar
© Racehorse Photos

Royal Irish Hussar
It is also worth noting that a number of juveniles have made their mark already this season with the Triumph Hurdle already shaping up to be a mouth-watering prospect. Nicky Henderson looks to have two leading contenders to keep an eye on in the form of Royal Irish Hussar (12/1) and Kentucky Hyden (16/1), both of whom have picked up impressive wins this season for the Champion Trainer. The same can be said of Analifet (10/1) over in Ireland for Willie Mullins; she has won two juvenile hurdles in facile fashion and could still be anything ahead of a likely run in the Triumph in March.

There are plenty more big races to look forward to in the build-up to the Festival with the likes of Sprinter Sacre and Big Buck’s just two of the horses still to return to the track. The four times World Hurdle winner, Big Buck’s, is expected to get his first run since last December in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January whilst fans must be patient over the return of Sprinter Sacre who was withdrawn from Saturday's Tingle Creek after scoping badly and another run will need to be found before he defends his Champion Chase crown.

Only half the picture is known at this stage and there are sure to be plenty of twists and turns during the second half of the 'Road to Cheltenham' with the full storyline only to be revealed come March.

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