Lydia Hislop discusses all things The Festival in her latest Road To Cheltenham column.
By Lydia Hislop
Last Updated: 06/01/14 3:36pm
These were a relatively quiet seven days, certainly compared with the frenzy of Christmas week. Two of the most significant developments - one positive, the other negative - emanated not from the racecourse but from back home at the yard.
The dominant news item for this division was the prognosis for Sprinter Sacre, which was undoubtedly more positive than this time last week.
His atrial fibrillation self-corrected, meaning he did not require a course of debilitating drugs, and he returned to light exercise last Friday under supervision from equine heart specialist, Professor Celia Marr.
Asked about the chances of this problem recurring, Marr told Racing UK's Oli Bell that: "It's difficult to put an exact percentage on that... Atrial fibrillation can recur but actually that's probably the exception rather than the rule and, if it does come back, it's often years later - not days or months.
"It's too early to say but it's perfectly possible that this doesn't necessarily have to trouble him again."
She also highlighted a key difference between this case and that of Denman, whom she treated prior to his highly successful comeback from the same condition. "Actually [this case is] not quite as bad, in that Denman did require treatment [meaning drugs] whereas Sprinter did manage to correct himself," she said.
Marr would not be drawn on when Sprinter Sacre would be able to return to racing, but trainer Nicky Henderson indicated that, unless the horse could be readied in time for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, they would draw stumps for the season.
This largely encouraging news for racing fans does little to clarify the betting perspective on this race, apart from making the 4/7 'with a run' option a little more attractive than I first thought.
Entries for this race will be published this Thursday, along with those for the Ryanair, although there is also a supplementary stage six days beforehand respectively. My idea of an overpriced horse, should he be entered, is Special Tiara. But there's no way he'd beat a well Sprinter Sacre.
There was bad news this week for connections - and fans, like me - of Sir Des Champs, who is out for the season with slight damage to a tendon in his leg. Now that his key rivals have been shortened - Bobs Worth to 9/4 favourite - the market is likely to be pretty static, bar disasters, until nearer the day.
Paul Nicholls announced Silviniaco Conti will go straight to the Gold Cup but that Al Ferof heads to Newbury's Denman Chase next month to help decide whether he will tackle the Gold Cup or Ryanair. Unioniste will go for Gold only if the ground is "bottomless", Rocky Creek runs in the Argento and will get both a Gold Cup and Grand National entry but Tidal Bay misses Cheltenham for Aintree. Rocky Creek has been trimmed in the Gold Cup betting in a few places.
For more extremely useful information on Nicholls' other running plans for some of his key horses, click on this link.
Entries for the Gold Cup will be announced this Wednesday, with a supplementary stage again applying.
I've put Annie Power in this section - rather than discuss her in the context of the Stan James Champion Hurdle or the OLBG David Nicholson Mares Hurdle, which could yet be potential targets - because Ruby Walsh mentioned how well she stayed.
Unbeaten in nine starts, this mare is very good indeed. She stone-cold thumped Zarkandar at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, on 7lb worse terms than their Ascot encounter in November.
Her victim is a horse who finished fourth in last year's Champion Hurdle and, having been hampered, still made The New One fight for success in the International. Literal interpretations are risky, however, because although Zarkandar manages in heavy ground, he tends to be a great deal better on a sounder surface. Annie Power, on the other hand, plainly loves the mud.
She also jumps nimbly and would be an unquantifiable threat in whatever Festival race trainer Willie Mullins decides upon. She's exciting.
Having unfortunately ended last season with falls at both the Cheltenham and Punchestown Festivals, stablemate Boston Bob returned to the latter track in happier circumstances on New Year's Eve. Reverting to hurdles, he did not need to be at his best to win but did so in straightforwardly impressive fashion.
The plan is now potentially the Cleeve at the end of this month, where he should get the testing ground in which he is so proficient and give his connections a good idea of where he stands among the World Hurdle pretenders. He is capable on a sounder surface but arguably at his best with more cut and needs to find quite a bit of improvement even on the latter form.
Oscar Whisky is palpably improving over fences, certainly in terms of technique. Bar for ballooning the first, he jumped well - far straighter than previously - at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, particularly when strongly challenged at the last when he got away from the fence with decisive alacrity.
He was 5lb worse off with Taquin Du Seuil and yet reversed the form of their November encounter. That rival was a tad disappointing on ground that suits and in a race that played to speed. He might have been a bit closer had he landed the last better, but he was always being held up the hill. Close House's jumping seemed to have regressed since his late-on fall when racing against Oscar Whisky on his previous start.
How literally to take this form is indeed an issue, given the current yard form for both the runner-up and third. Neither trainer could be said to be totally out of sorts, yet they have both recently been operating well below their strike rates of October and November.
This is not (as yet, at least) a long-term worry for either yard, but more a note of caution about the solidity of form-lines such as this. O'Neill in particular is adept at peaking his horses for the Festival.
Another question to remain about Oscar Whisky is his ability to replicate this form in a big Grade One field, when he will be hustled at his fences and less able to approach them on his terms. Even over hurdles, at the highest level, his best form was in small fields.As you will have seen if you have already clicked on the Nicholls link, Just A Par has undergone a minor breathing operation since flopping at Kempton on Boxing Day. It sounds like we might see him again this season, but possibly at Aintree rather than Cheltenham. Sam Winner is getting that RSA entry, as well as in the 4m NH Chase, thankfully.
It's hard to know exactly what to make of Briar Hill's hard-won victory at Naas on Sunday, except that it probably should be taken as a net positive.
Given he was the 1/3 favourite, how hard he was made to work by Apache Jack was as disconcerting initially as was the subsequent realisation of how near the poor-jumping Very Wood ultimately finished. Perhaps the former rival is worth a try at shorter and the latter ridden more conventionally, now that connections know he stays.
The winner was conceding upwards of 7lb and Mullins felt the testing ground was against him, rendering him lazy. The formbook can be read to back that interpretation up, his best performance having come on good-to-soft ground when winning last year's Festival bumper.
More immediate positives are that Briar Hill responded positively to pressure in a sustained duel with the runner-up and has improved his jumping since last time, to the point that he was good under pressure when a mistake at the final flight might have cost him the race. He looks more of a Neptune type than an Albert Bartlett candidate to my eyes.
At Cheltenham on New Year's Day, Lizzie Kelly enjoyed a race to remember for the rest of her life when winning in well-judged style on Aubusson. The horse is lightly raced and progressive, but may love the mud and Jane Williams - lynchpin at Nick Williams' yard as well as being the owner of Aubusson, wife of the trainer and mother of the rider - is not a fan of taking young horses to the Festival. I suspect she will win that tussle and we can look forward to Aubusson as a useful staying prospect, over fences as well.
Connections were inclined to blame Ballyalton's fourth on the ground and the way he went from travelling to floundering lends that some credence. It's still hard to pin down the total value of his form to date, however, or what trip is his best. He remains promising. Racing Pulse may also not have enjoyed the deep ground.