Cheltenham Festival weekend eyecatchers – Five to watch at Cheltenham

Cilaos Emery was a big Cheltenham Festival weekend eyecatcherCilaos Emery was a big Cheltenham Festival weekend eyecatcher

Brian Healy looks back over last week’s UK and Irish horse racing action and picks out five Cheltenham Festival weekend eyecatchers who will head to the greatest show on turf on the back of solid performances.

While the weather put paid to much of the week’s scheduled jumps racing action, the weekend saw plenty of classy action and some notable performances were posted by a few potential Cheltenham Festival protagonists.

Ascot and Haydock, as well as Gowran Park and Navan in Ireland all saw some top-class performances as several big names stamped their tickets for their Cotswolds sojourn in March, while others saw hopes dented and dashed.

With only a few weeks to go until the tapes go up for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle Brian Healy picks out five possible Cheltenham Festival contenders who posted eyecatching weekend runs and who might be worth following if they turn out next month.

SPORTING JOHN (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle)

Philip Hobbs’ unbeaten SPORTING JOHN cemented his place in the line-up for the Grade One Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle on Festival Wednesday with a smooth success over Pipesmoker in the opening race at Ascot.

The Getaway gelding was extending his winning run to a perfect 3-3 having also won in a point-to-point previously and he was always travelling well under Barry Geraghty before going to the front on the run to the second last.

He only needed to be pushed out to score by an easy six lengths from Nicky Henderson’s rival and Master Debonair who had won a Grade Two previously for his trainer Colin Tizzard.

Master Debonair could be worth another chance having possibly failed to get home; but the performance of Sporting John was impressive and one of the big Cheltenham Festival weekend eyecatchers who could go on to better things for all his next assignment will be a big step up in grade.

He is open to plenty of improvement though and gives Philip Hobbs a very strong hand in the Ballymore Hurdle with the trainer also having Thyme Hill in the list of possible runners for that Grade One.

Cheltenham Festival weekend eyecatchers. Sporting John was an impressive winner at Ascot.

Sporting John was an impressive Cheltenham Festival weekend eyecatcher when winning at Ascot,

CILAOS EMERY (Champion Hurdle)

Having lost his unbeaten record over fences with a fall behind Chacun Pour Soi at Leopardstown at the beginning of February, trainer Willie Mullins took the decision to revert CILAOS EMERY back to hurdles for Saturday’s Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park.

That proved to be a very shrewd move by the Closutton handler as the Califet gelding charge duly bolted up by almost ten lengths from Darasso and others, barely coming off the bridle despite making a mistake three out.

Always travelling powerfully under jockey Paul Townend, he only needed to be pushed out by his rider for a comfortable success. While the substance of the form could be questioned, onlookers couldn’t have failed to have been impressed by the Califet gelding’s return to the smaller obstacles.

Arguably the most impressive of the Cheltenham Festival weekend eyecatchers, it’s easy to forget however that this won a Grade One over hurdles as a novice when beating Melon in the 2017 Herald Champion Novice Hurdle. He had also ran a good fifth in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle won by the enigmatic Labaik the time before; and he also made the frame in the 2017 Ryanair Hurdle behind Mick Jazz so he is clearly a classy performer over hurdles.

While he has entries in the Champion Chase and Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, he may well end up in the Champion Hurdle picture yet where he wouldn’t be without a chance if connections decide to supplement him for the Tuesday highlight.

KALOOKI (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle)

The Prestige Novices’ Hurdle at Haydock went the way of the dour stayer Ramses De Teillee who had run the previous year in the Grand National. David Pipe’s charge could now go to the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

However, the performance of runner-up KALOOKI marked him out as a potential Festival dark horse given the way he travelled through the race before possibly just failing to get home.

Philip Hobbs’ Martaline gelding has progressed well over hurdles, winning at Ludlow and Wetherby earlier in the year before stepping up to three miles for the first time at the Merseyside track on Saturday.

Kalooki looked to be travelling best under jockey Tom O’Brien and having taken a slender advantage over the last hurdle the writing looked on the wall for the Pipe runner who was under some strong pressure. However his stamina possibly gave way on the run-in in what was some attritional conditions and he was outstayed by the eventual winner.

One of several Cheltenham Festival weekend eyecatchers to be seen at Haydock, he probably faces an uphill task if turning out at the greatest show on turf where the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle would be his likely target; but he could be one for the notebook in any case and he should be winning more races.

Kalooki was a Cheltenham Festival weekend eyecatcher despite meeting with defeat.

Kalooki was a Cheltenham Festival weekend eyecatcher despite meeting with defeat.

EMITOM (Stayer’s Hurdle)

Warren Greatrex’s EMITOM proved himself a class act with a taking weekend performance that saw him demolish his field in the Grade Two Rendlesham Hurdle and potentially book himself a place in the Stayers’ Hurdle where’d he in line for a crack at reigning champion Paisley Park.

The Gold Well gelding was 4-5 over hurdles as a novice, meeting his sole defeat behind Champ in the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree. He looked badly in need of his reappearance at Cheltenham on New Years’ Day in the Relkeel Hurdle, but the Greatrex stable was quiet around that time.

He showed him to be amongst the pick of the Cheltenham Festival weekend eyecatchers with a strong performance, always travelling well under Gavin Sheehan and he wasn’t invconvenienced by being squeezed up on the inner rail when the field entered the straight.

Warren Greatrex’s star showed a nice turn of foot to sprint away from his field after the last with his rider not needing to get serious to land the odds by eight lengths. He could be a big player in Thursday’s Stayers’ Hurdle and on the Haydock evidence he could give reigning champion Paisley Park something to think about in the Stayers’ Hurdle.

ALCALA (Foxhunter’s Chase)

The last of the Cheltenham Festival weekend eyecatchers, Paul Nicholls knows what it takes to win the Foxhunter’s Chase and the Ditcheat maestro looks to hold another strong hand in the race with ALCALA jumping into the reckoning with a solid success at Haydock in the Walrus Open Hunters’ Chase.

The Turgeon gelding was very smart over fences and he took massive strides over the larger obstacles throughout 2017 where he won five on the spin before his losing run was halted at Chepstow behind Finian’s Oscar where he slipped and unseated his rider.

He’s not been at that level since in his subsequent starts; but he looks as if he retains all his ability as evidenced by his ready win on Saturday over Wishing And Hoping.

But while that was a very good effort on just his second start back from a lengthy absence he still needs to qualify for the Foxhunters’ Chase and he could turn out quickly at Fontwell on Saturday where a podium finish ought to be good enough to see him get in the line-up.