After a festive period when most of the leading national hunt horses appeared on the various racecourses throughout UK and Ireland, both the 2013 Cheltenham Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle winners demonstrated that they will not concede their titles in March without a fight. Both Bobs Worth and Hurricane Fly won their respective races without appearing to show their top form yet there were many other performances which caught the eye ahead of the 2014 Cheltenham Festival.
Bobs Worth responded to a below par performance in the Betfair Chase at Haydock with a courageous display when winning the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown but Sir Des Champs was not beaten far when occupying fourth place in his first real race of the season. He will improve for this running and may be much closer to Bobs Worth when the two meet again at Cheltenham.
In the King George VI Chase at Kempton, Silviniaco Conti proved that he must be considered a threat to Bobs Worth when defeating the non-staying Cue Card, with both Long Run and Dynaste disappointing their connections.
For the hurdlers, Hurricane Fly is still the horse to beat in the 2014 Champion Hurdle after he disposed of both Jezki and the young pretender Our Conor in the Ryanair Hurdle. The Willie Mullins trained horse still possesses the required turn of foot at the business end of the race and will be difficult to beat on the Cheltenham hill.
However, Our Conor was returning after an injury setback and was in contention as the horses approached the final fence. His running should not be ignored and the same argument can be applied to both My Tent Or Yours and The New One who fought a terrific duel in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. All three are young horses who will improve further by March.
Perhaps one of the saddest moments of the festive racing was the sight of two mile champion Sprinter Sacre being pulled-up half way into the running of the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton. Previously unbeaten over fences, the Nicky Henderson trained horse was diagnosed with an irregular heart beat and faces as undetermined absence from the racecourse. Horses have recovered from such an ailment to return to racing and it is to be hoped that we have not seen the last performance of this majestic racehorse.
In contrast to this deflating experience was the running of veteran Tidal Bay in the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow when finishing third despite carrying top weight in heavy going. His popularity increases with age and the Grand National at Aintree may prove to be a fitting climax to a colourful career.