Timeform's Jumps Handicapper, Phil Turner, reflects on Cheltenham's Festival Trials Day and brings you the latest ratings updates.
"Perhaps the biggest question still revolves around Oscar Whisky (Timeform rating h167), whose narrow defeat in the Cleeve Hurdle may have proved his stamina at three miles but wasn't enough to fully clear up lingering doubts about his likely participation at the Festival."
Race-starved jumping fans were able to gorge on a bumper feast of top-notch action after Trials Day at Cheltenham beat the weather and, for once, they're unlikely to mind if such over-indulgence repeats on them come the Festival itself in March.
Indeed, it wouldn't be a surprise if several of Saturday's close finishes are played out again by the same protagonists (plus leading Irish raiders) in seven weeks time, though whether they'll finish in quite the same order is another matter.
Perhaps the biggest question still revolves around Oscar Whisky (Timeform rating h167), whose narrow defeat in the Cleeve Hurdle may have proved his stamina at three miles but wasn't enough to fully clear up lingering doubts about his likely participation at the Festival. With the Nicky Henderson stable likely to be mob-handed in the Champion Hurdle, it seems increasingly unlikely that Oscar Whisky will get the chance to try and improve upon his third place in the 2011 renewal of that race. Another tilt at the World Hurdle, therefore, could well be on the cards, though it is worth stressing that connections have repeatedly stated that a third win in the Aintree Hurdle is the main aim, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him miss Cheltenham altogether - which is reportedly the plan with Thousand Stars (h163), a close second to Oscar Whisky at Aintree in both 2011 and 2012.
Should the pull of the Cheltenham Festival prove too strong, however, then Oscar Whisky is well worth a chance to reverse placings with Cleeve winner Reve de Sivola (h162x), particularly if granted less extreme underfoot conditions and a less patient ride than was adopted on Saturday. That said, Reve de Sivola still deserves to be viewed as a major player in the World Hurdle, particularly as Saturday's win fully confirmed the form of his wide-margin success in last month's Long Walk Hurdle and maintained his unbeaten start under new jockey Richard Johnson.
Timeform's top-rated staying hurdlers:
176+ BIG BUCK'S
167 OSCAR WHISKY
163 THOUSAND STARS
162x REVE DE SIVOLA
162 BOG WARRIOR
162 CELESTIAL HALO
Speaking of unbeaten records, there was a trio of up-and-coming novices bidding for a four-timer in the Grade 2 Classic Novices' Hurdle, so another grandstand finish was always likely to be on the cards. Coneygree (h142) was arguably unsuited by the drop back in trip and had cried enough on the long run to the last, largely due to an impressive injection of pace off the home turn by The New One (h151p). Alas, the latter probably paid for that move as he was unable to withstand a strong late rally by At Fishers Cross (h152p) and went down by a neck in the end. As the retention of a "p" on each of the first two would suggest, they remain very exciting prospects and seem set to head the home-trained challenge in the staying novice hurdles come the Festival.
It proved a heart-breaking afternoon for local trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, as The New One's last-gasp defeat was a mirror image to that suffered by his 2010 Gold Cup winner Imperial Commander (c164?) in the Argento Chase just thirty-five minutes earlier. Rather like The New One, Imperial Commander shaped like the most likely winner for much of the way and clearly retains the bulk of his ability after nearly two years off, though the fact he ultimately failed to beat Cape Tribulation (c159+) when in receipt of 6 lb suggests he'll struggle to regain that Gold Cup crown now aged twelve - particularly as his past record suggests he may not come on for what ended up a hard race.
Another gelding with Gold Cup aspirations is the rapidly-improving Katenko (c157p), who followed up his recent impressive Sandown win with a wide-margin success in what had looked a competitive handicap beforehand. Admittedly, French import Katenko still has significant improvement to find if he's to mix it at Grade 1 level, but he's clearly a different proposition now under the care of Venetia Williams and is well worth a step-up in class.
The prize for easiest winner at Cheltenham on Saturday, however, can only go to one horse - Sprinter Sacre (c183p). In truth, his peerless display in the rescheduled Victor Chandler Chase told us nothing new and he didn't have to run right up to that lofty rating, but everything about the performance underlined his position as the best National Hunt horse currently in training. Although his tag as "jump racing's Frankel" may seem a lazy comparison, it's also a very accurate one and he should already be considered as one of the all-time greats even at this relatively early stage of his career.