David Cleary looks at the best of the weekend's action, as next month's Cheltenham Festival draws ever closer...
"Another Supreme contender to state his claims in open company on Saturday was Grand Sancy, who gained a hard-fought success in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton....This was a typically good piece of placing by his trainer [Paul Nicholls], Grand Sancy running here rather than in the Betfair Hurdle, in which he would have been giving weight to Al Dancer. There's still not much between them in terms of achievement and it's likely that Grand Sancy's performance has been underestimated by the layers."
Cyrname top class in routing rivals
The show was well and truly back on the road at the weekend, after the brief break in Britain due to the equine flu outbreak, with plenty of notable performances, but there was none better than that of Cyrname in the Betfair Ascot Chase, the one Grade 1 contest of the weekend, his effort among the very best produced all season.
Cyrname had run his rivals ragged when winning a valuable handicap at the previous Ascot meeting, but it was form of a different magnitude that he could do the same to a field containing a trio of previous winners at the highest level. Cyrname's jumping was again excellent and the manner in which he powered away from his rivals after they had looked threatening turning in was exhilarating to see.
He hadn't been entered for Cheltenham, given his tendency to jump right, and it may be that the Punchestown Gold Cup will be his spring target, rather than the Ryanair, though connections do have the option of supplementing at the Festival.
Waiting Patiently still in Ryanair picture
Although he managed just a remote second behind Cyrname, the previous season's winner Waiting Patiently took a step forward with spring targets in mind. When he had beaten Cue Card on that previous occasion, everything went his way in the race and he'd had a smooth preparation. This time round, he'd got only to halfway in the King George and had missed a possible run at Kempton again since. Waiting Patiently left the impression he still needed the run and may yet do better, with the Ryanair remaining a plausible option.
The third Fox Norton might also come on again for the run, the way in which he moved through the field after three out quite impressive, though his effort flattened out once past two out. He's another who might well turn up in the Ryanair.
Kalashnikov fails to fire
Sandown on Friday played host to the rearranged Kingmaker Novices' Chase, lost at Warwick the previous Saturday. Only four were due to go to post, the field further reduced when the excitable Dalila du Seuil was withdrawn at the start due to a broken blood vessel.
The race was effectively a match from before halfway and then a solo in the straight. The long-odds-on Kalashnikov didn't jump nearly well enough against a bold front-runner like Glen Forsa, Kalashnikov also seeming to be caught out for speed, kept to two miles. He would obviously benefit from going up in trip, though whether he'd jump well enough if taking his chance in the JLT/Golden Miller remains in some question.
As for Glen Forsa, he took the big step up in grade and the significant drop in trip in his stride. His jumping was as bold as it had been in winning a novice handicap at Kempton after Christmas. His success at Sandown rules out Glen Forsa's original Cheltenham target, as his new mark will mean he's not eligible for the Close Brothers Handicap.
Instead, the Arkle or the JLT beckons, with Friday's success surely encouraging a bid for the former. The form is obviously not easy to weigh up, given the favourite clearly wasn't at his best, though the overall time would encourage a pretty positive view.
Yalltari the name to take from Reynoldstown
In the staying novice chase division, Ascot's Reynoldstown Chase was the most significant contest. This developed into a dour test of stamina, the upgraded Mister Malarky benefiting from a good ride as he was sat off a strong gallop. He has improved from run to run so far over fences and will surely progress again when he is stepped up to four miles in the National Hunt Chase.
The runner-up Now McGinty and third Yalltari also hold entries in that race and, much as Now McGinty's gutsy attitude is to be commended, perhaps Yalltari is the most interesting of the trio, so far as the National Hunt Chase is concerned. He travelled best, but was sent for home too soon and didn't see the race out so well as the other pair - his earlier efforts make it very unlikely lack of stamina was to blame.
Al and Sancy press Supreme claims in contrasting styles
The rearranged Betfair Hurdle went the way of the novice Al Dancer, who will attempt to go one better than Kalashnikov, in trying to add the Supreme to his big handicap success. He's a speedier sort than last year's winner and sets the standard, so far as the form among the British-trained contenders is concerned. He will surely give a good account, though the market might well turn again if Angels Breath takes up one of his multiple entries this week.
That Angels Breath is part owned by Al Dancer's owner rather complicates matters, and it may be the former will be tried over further than two miles, dipping a toe in the Baring Bingham/Ballymore water.
Another Supreme contender to state his claims in open company on Saturday was Grand Sancy, who gained a hard-fought success in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. This was a Champion Hurdle trial in name only, the runner-up being the Champion Chase-bound Sceau Royal, but it still took a smart effort to lower his colours. This was a typically good piece of placing by his trainer, Grand Sancy running here rather than in the Betfair Hurdle, in which he would have been giving weight to Al Dancer. There's still not much between them in terms of achievement and it's likely that Grand Sancy's performance has been underestimated by the layers.
Saturday as a whole must have been extremely satisfying for the former champion trainer Paul Nicholls, Grand Sancy and Cyrname among eight winners for his yard.
Clan des Obeaux's easy win in the Denman Chase finally saw him move to the sort of price he should have been after the King George in the Gold Cup market. His performance will be looked at in greater depth later in the week, as the Cheltenham Countdown moves on to looking at the major races at the Festival in depth.
And here's the latest movers on the Betfair Exchange
In defeating Waiting Patiently by 17 lengths, Cyrname announced himself as a top-class horse when winning the Grade 1 Betfair Ascot Chase. Although he will need to be supplemented for the Ryanair Chase, his current price of [20.0] could prove to be good value should he be sent to Prestbury Park in three weeks.
Another Nicholls inmate, Clan Des Obeaux, cemented his place alongside Presenting Percy at the head of the Cheltenham Gold Cup betting at [5.8] (from [12.5]) with a smooth success in the Grade 2 Betfair Denman Chase.
In the rearranged Betfair Hurdle, Al Dancer jumped to the head of the betting for the Supreme Novice Hurdle at [4.7] (from [13.5]) after landing the valuable handicap by 3.75 lengths from Magic Dancer.
Over in Ireland, Monalee boosted his own Festival claims with a smooth success in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park on Saturday. He sits behind Min [6.0] at the top of the betting for the Ryanair Chase at, clipped in from [11.5] to [9.6].
Tiger Roll proved his well-being went landing the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle at Navan on Sunday afternoon. Trained by Betfair Ambassador Gordon Elliott, the eight-year-old is now a short-priced favourite at [2.52] (from [3.5]) to take the Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham and remains at the head of the Grand National betting at [12.5].