With ever gloomy January firmly kicked in the ass and told not to come back for another year, February has rolled around and if our understanding of the Gregorian calendar holds up, that means March is next up and it’s time to start focussing on Cheltenham – pretty much the only reason March exists. Somewhat disappointingly for a follow-up to that excitable opening, this weekend’s racing doesn’t feature a whole lot of what we’d call ‘stars of the jumps’. And Sandown being cancelled hasn’t helped. It’s a real shame, mainly for the loss of some high class racing, but more importantly because I’d done a bit about the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase that you would have liked. It was really funny. Think Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy – only funny.
Anyway, it means the racing on Saturday is a little more sparse than we’d been planning and in words we never thought we’d have to write, the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las is the highlight. It’s less about a thrilling contest and more about watching a leading contender for the Champion Hurdle or a potential runner-up to Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle as he shapes up for one of those engagements at Cheltenham. Oscar Whisky is the horse and after he finished 3rd not far behind Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle, he’s clearly a talented performer. As such he’s tipped as an outsider to keep an eye out for, but not really considered capable of actually winning either of the Festival’s championship hurdling events. A convincing win in the Welsh champion Hurdle might improve his reputation, but considering the level of opposition he’s likely to face, he’d nearly need to be lapping them for it to have a substantial effect on his price for either Cheltenham hurdling assignment.
Sunday should be less bothered by the weather so hopefully Punchestown can provide a good day’s racing. There’s something of a dress rehearsal for the Queen Mother Champion Chase – only a dress rehearsal that doesn’t involve the vast majority of the cast and therefore can’t tell us too much about the main event. It should be interesting nonetheless with the last two champion chasers going head to head in the Tied Cottage Chase. Sizing Europe is the current champion, but the odds tell us he’s the underdog in the latest chapter of the rivalry. Big Zeb heads the betting and that may be a mild surprise to some people considering that when it comes to the Champion Chase, Sizing Europe is the favourite with Big Zeb trying to upset the favourite backers. A lot of that may be down to the likely going on Sunday with the heavy ground more likely to suit Colm Murphy’s runner. The fact that he’s on a run of three high class chase wins that began by upsetting Sizing Europe at Punchestown last May and he’s in the form of his life may also have something to do with it. The effects this race will have on the betting for Cheltenham will be very interesting, but it’s fascinating match-up on its own. And don’t be too concerned if you notice a horse that isn’t Big Zeb or Sizing Europe running around during the race, don’t worry, he’s supposed to be there, not that you’d have guessed it from this narrowly focussed preview.
There’s also a good little Novice Hurdle at Punchestown, named after the legend that is Moscow Flyer. None of the runners are big fancies for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, but most of them do have entries for the Cheltenham opener and as it’s the Supreme Novices’, you can be pretty sure that if one horse does win in a bit of style, he’ll be – to use the technical term – hyped up to bejaysus for the big race. We’ve also got an interesting Pertemps Handicap Hurdle at Punchestown. None of the leading contenders for the race have entries in any of the Cheltenham races, but at this time of the year we’re contractually obliged to say ‘Cheltenham’ as many times as possible, so who knows, maybe they’ll turn up at Cheltenham in March or possibly at Cheltenham at some time in the future. Cheltenham.