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Christmas festivals review

So, the Christmas festivals have come and gone, the races have been run, the accolades have been awarded and the dust has just about settled. In one sense, that is the end of the story. The King George, the Lexus Chase, the Ryanair Hurdle: they were the stories. In another, however, they are mere chapters in the season’s tome. That’s this racing game for you, always looking forward, barely pausing for a moment to appreciate the now. And, in truth, there was much to be learned from the Christmas racing with a view to the remainder of the season in general and the Cheltenham Festival in particular.

First things first, Silviniaco Conti was very good in winning the King George. Under a superbly aggressive ride from Noel Fehily, Paul Nicholls’ horse hardly missed a beat. It was all very straightforward really. The best horse in the race, stamina proven, he led from flagfall and galloped his rivals into submission.

The bookmakers were unanimous in making the Dom Alco gelding their Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite afterwards, and that makes sense on several levels. However, it may pay to tread warily. All his best form is on flat tracks. He has earned a Racing Post Rating of 170 or more seven times in his career, and those seven runs have been at Kempton, Aintree, Haydock and Newbury. All flat tracks.

Silviniaco Conti has run three times at Cheltenham, and he has never won there. He was travelling well going down the hill in the 2013 Gold Cup before he fell at the third last fence. He was also travelling well going down the hill in the 2014 Gold Cup, but he didn’t come back up the other side as well, and he finished only fourth. It may be that he is just not as his best at Cheltenham. Also, he is nine now. He has had chances.

Road To Riches also has to prove that he can handle Cheltenham, but, while the Noel Meade-trained gelding has never won there, he has never been beaten there either.

We learned plenty about him in the Lexus Chase. We learned that he did not have to lead, we learned that he could handle easy ground, and we learned that he could go left-handed. As well as that, we learned that he could stay a stiff three miles.

He went to the last fence in third place, with two proven stayers, Sam Winner and On His Own, in front of him, and he out-stayed the pair of them up the hill. In so doing, he left the impression that another two and a half furlongs and a steeper final climb could be well within his compass, and he is a Gold Cup player now, no question.

Boston Bob and Lord Windermere, although both well beaten in the Lexus, both remain Gold Cup contenders. Boston Bob has Cheltenham form, he fell at the final fence when in front in the 2013 RSA Chase, and ran a fine race on Sunday to finish fourth. He should come on again for the run, his third of the season, and he could do better in the Hennessy Gold Cup back at Leopardstown next month. It may not be insignificant that his trainer Willie Mullins has never won the Lexus, but the champion trainer has won the Hennessy nine times, more times than any other trainer.

Lord Windermere is another who should come on for the run, just his second of the season, and he is unbeaten at Cheltenham. He has won an RSA Chase and a Gold Cup there in two visits. The better ground and the longer trip of the Gold Cup should play to his strengths.

Owners Gigginstown House had a hugely successful Christmas festival. Gigginstown horses contested seven Grade 1 races at Leopardstown, and they won four of them: the Racing Post Chase with Clarcam, the Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle with Lieutenant Colonel and the Topaz Chase with Don Poli, as well as the Lexus Chase with Road To Riches.

Vautour may not have run his race in the Racing Post Chase, but Clarcam still looked mighty good in beating him and Ted Veale and Real Steel. The Gordon Elliott-trained gelding’s jumping was accurate and efficient, just as it had been when he won his beginners’ chase at Navan on his previous run, and he is a real Arkle contender now, despite the fact that his 11lb age allowance will be reduced to 1lb by next March.

Lieutenant Colonel probably stepped forward on his Hatton’s Grace Hurdle win by beating Jetson by three parts of a length in the Christmas Hurdle, even though it was three and a quarter lengths less than the distance by which he beat Jessica Harrington’s horse at Fairyhouse. In so doing, the Sandra Hughes-trained gelding proved that he stayed three miles well, and he has to be a World Hurdle contender now.

Just as Don Poli really has to be a contender for the RSA Chase now. The Poliglote gelding travelled really strongly and stayed on well to get the better of the talented Apache Stronghold in the Topaz Chase. Trainer Willie Mullins had mentioned the National Hunt Chase as a probable Cheltenham target after he won at Gowran Park in November, but, a winner at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival, you have to think that the Grade 1 RSA Chase is the more logical objective now.

Hurricane Fly and Jezki raised the roof again when they fought out the finish of the Ryanair Hurdle. It is unlikely that there will be another hurdler like Hurricane Fly for a very long time. Willie Mullins’ horse has run the superlative well dry, a 21-time Grade 1 winner now. However, odds of 14/1 about him going back to Cheltenham and landing a third Champion Hurdle as an 11-year-old – remember that Sea Pigeon did it, so it is not impossible – are probably about right.

The Jessica Harrington-trained Jezki, four years Hurricane Fly’s junior, is a more likely contender. The reigning champ, you know that he will be at his best on the spring Cheltenham ground.

He will probably have to improve again, however, if he is to beat Faugheen, who danced in in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Willie Mullins’ horse has run nine times now: once in a point-to-point, once in a bumper and seven times over hurdles, and he has won on all nine occasions. He enhances his reputation every time he sets foot on a racecourse, and there is no telling how good he could be. Winner of the Neptune Hurdle last year on his only run at Cheltenham, we will not know the limit of his ability until he gets beaten, and that may not be for a while yet.

© The Sunday Times, 4th January 2015