Faugheen: favourite for the Champion Hurdle may return on January 29PICTURE: Getty Images
Cheltenham sat nav: festival clues to be found
WITH under nine weeks to go until the gates of Prestbury Park swing open for the start of the Cheltenham Festival, anticipation for jump racing's Olympics is building, but before then there is still so much top-class action in store. With the finishing touches yet to be put to many of the leading contenders and others yet to emerge, we take a look at the five key dates between now and March 14.
Saturday, January 21: Ascot and Haydock
Why it's good: Seven graded races across two cards - one north, one south - is never a bad weekend line-up, especially when in past years crowds at Ascot have seen the likes of subsequent festival scorers Master Minded, Sire De Grugy and Vroum Vroum Mag. Festival winners are not consigned solely to Ascot on this weekend, though, with Taquin Du Seuil taking in a Grade 2 novice chase at Haydock en route to success in the JLT in 2014.
Why it matters for Cheltenham: The clue is in the names above. The Grade 1 Clarence House Chase is a major trial for the Champion Chase and this year's renewal promises plenty, while there will be novice and handicap pointers across the two meetings.
Who could run: There are just nine entries for the Clarence House Chase but they include some special horses. Racing Post Arkle favourite Altior - the chaser some believe might go a long way to replacing Sprinter Sacre, who won the rearranged Clarence House at Cheltenham in 2013, - is unbeaten in three starts over fences and could face Tingle Creek winner Un De Sceaux and Gary Moore's duo of Ar Mad and Sire De Grugy.
Winners that went on to score at the festival (last four years - both meetings lost in 2013): 6
Placed horses that went on to win at the festival (last four years): 0
Saturday, January 28 - Cheltenham
Why it's good: Festival trials day - it says it on the tin, so to speak. A final chance for connections to find out whether their stable stars are suited by the demanding course, while for others, a decision will be made on which race to contest after this meeting. The last three years have been run on soft or heavy ground but it has still thrown up several festival scorers - and who can turn down a day out at Cheltenham? It would be churlish to forget Doncaster on this day, where Annie Power landed the Grade 2 mares' hurdle before finishing second to More Of That in the World Hurdle three years ago.
Why it matters for Cheltenham: Five Graded races at the course, boosted this year by the addition of the rescheduled cross country handicap chase, makes it a meeting you cannot afford to miss, while at Doncaster there are three Grade 2 contests and the Listed Sky Bet Chase to enjoy.
Thistlecrack: set for a second experience of the chase course at CheltenhamPICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)
Who could run: Gold Cup favourite Thistlecrack, who landed the Cleeve Hurdle on this card last year before dominating the World Hurdle in March, is set to make his fifth start over fences in the Cotswold Chase - a race won by Gold Cup heroes Master Oats and Looks Like Trouble in previous years. The Stayers' Hurdle is one of the more open championship events at the festival in March and there will be a chance to assess the ante-post favourite Unowhatimeanharry at this meeting, who is being aimed at the Cleeve Hurdle.
There's two good enough reasons to attend.
Winners that went on to score at the festival (last five years): 6
Placed horses that went on to win at the festival (last five years): 2
Sunday, January 29 - Leopardstown
Why it's good: An honour roll that includes Faugheen, Hurricane Fly, Hardy Eustace, Istabraq and Dawn Run tells you everything you need to know about the Irish Champion Hurdle - a race you cannot afford to miss. Earlier in the day there is also the Grade 1 Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase, won last year by subsequent Racing Post Arkle hero Douvan.
Why it matters for Cheltenham: Five of the last six Champion Hurdle winners have been trained in Ireland and this year's renewal is likely to be no different with Faugheen, Annie Power and Petit Mouchoir all at the head of the betting, while Un De Sceaux and Kicking King are among the greats that join Douvan in winning the Grade 1 novice chase on this card.
Who could run: Min, Listen Dear, Identity Thief and Bleu Et Rouge are among the 11 entries for the novice chase and Petit Mouchoir appears a definite runner in the Irish Champion Hurdle, although all eyes will be on the declarations to see which of the seven Willie Mullins entries take their place. Here's hoping at least one of Faugheen and/or Annie Power are in the line-up.
Winners that went on to score at the festival (last five years): 3
Placed horses that went on to win at the festival (last five years): 1
Saturday, February 11 - Newbury
Why it's good: The Betfair Denman Chase has been landed by an abundance of eventual Gold Cup winners in the past, most notably Kauto Star, Long Run, Coneygree and 'The Tank' himself.
Why it matters for Cheltenham: There's not just Gold Cup pointers on offer at Newbury with the Grade 2 Betfair Exchange Chase and Grade 3 Betfair Hurdle proving informative contests over the years. Don't forget the closing Listed bumper either, won last year by Champion Bumper scorer Ballyandy.
Ballyandy (near): won the Listed bumper at Newbury before notching Cheltenham gloryPICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)
Who could run: "I'm not that mad about having to take on Thistlecrack," said Oliver Sherwood, and no one can blame him! Sherwood is likely to run lively Gold Cup outsider and Grand National market leader Many Clouds in the Betfair Denman Chase. Entries have been made for Britain's richest handicap hurdle, the Betfair Hurdle, and Irish-trained contenders account for 14 of the 54 possibles in what is sure to be an informative contest.
Winners that went on to score at the festival (last five years): 3
Placed horses that went on to win at the festival (last five years): 0
Sunday, February 12 - Leopardstown
Why it's good: It's Irish Gold Cup day and four Grade 1 contests on one card takes some beating - on recent figures this meeting comes out on top in terms of providing festival clues. Be sure to keep an eye on those in defeat as well as the winners with six subsequent festival scorers coming from the placed horses on this day in the past five years.
Why it matters for Cheltenham: There's little more than a month between this meeting and the festival so it's the last chance for trainers in Ireland to show their hand ahead of the biggest four days of the jump racing calendar in March. Among those previously successful at both Leopardstown and Cheltenham include Our Conor, Champagne Fever and Vautour.
Who could run: Grade 1 winners Valseur Lido and Zabana are both being readied for the feature Irish Gold Cup, won by Carlingford Lough last year, as well as last season's festival handicap chase scorer Empire Of Dirt. It's also likely racegoers will get a first sight this season of Foxhunter Chase favourite On The Fringe, who is set to return in the hunters chase.
Winners that went on to score at the festival (last five years): 5
Placed horses that went on to win at the festival (last five years): 6