February 13 – Thurles – Zanahiyr – 72

An above-average beginners’ chase by the track standards and in what turned out to be a titanic tussle between the front two in the market, Gordon Elliott’s inmate gained the day in the closing stages. Having picked up the running at the second last, it looked as though the seven-year-old was going to brush aside the front-running Aspire Tower, but to be fair to the eventual runner-up, he rallied to the cause and made the favourite work harder than anticipated. On this evidence, two miles around a sharp track was an insufficient test of stamina for a horse who has tried three miles in the past and he can be seen to better effect once stepped back up in trip accordingly. Whether he is Cheltenham festival material is open to debate but either way, he should pay his way over fences at a decent level.

February 15 – Sandown – Springtime Promise – 65

Probably not the hottest Grade 2 ever run but it was a competitive one at least and it went the way of a horse who flew in under the radar and ultimately left a lasting impression. Having landed a couple of fairly low key affairs, Fergal O’ Brien’s mare was quite a difficult one to assess in many respects but she did run a number at Sedgefield previously to suggest she might have what it takes to gain some black type – and so it proved. Noted going well tracking the pace set by Cherie D’Am, the daughter of Fame And Glory looked to playing second fiddle to the pace setter until rallying well after the second last and with the wind very much in her sails after jumping the last, she stayed on best of all to win going away. Clearly a stout stayer who enjoys plenty of dig underfoot, she will need similar soft ground to be considered for the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham but if those conditions did prevail, she would be one of the more interesting outsiders.

February 15 – Sandown – Etalon – 72

Having impressed on both chase starts at Newbury and Warwick, Dan Skelton’s gelding was a warm order to complete the hat trick and at no stage did he ever give his supporters any anxious moments. Getting into a lovely rhythm right from the start, the son of Sholokhov was pure poetry in motion over the railway fences down the back straight and by the time he had reached the Pond Fence, the race was as good as over. Staying on well all the way to the line, he posted a very useful speed figure and it’s a shame we won’t get a chance to see him again at Cheltenham with connections citing a tilt at Aintree as his next target.

February 17 – Ascot – Henry’s Friend – 73

A race similar to the Challow Hurdle, one that is usually the kiss of death regarding Cheltenham prospects but that aside, it produced numbers that suggests the form could still be worth following. Apple Away ensured the race was run at a good tempo from the start and it was still in the balance approaching the last, with all four remaining contenders still in with a chance, However, Ben Pauling’s inmate was the one who got away from the fence with the most momentum and gritting his teeth all the way to the line, he found the necessary reserves to fend off the persistent challenge of Kilbeg King. Not only was the speed figure very good – the best on the card – the final circuit time of 2.39.7 was 3.7 seconds quicker than the older horse chase won by Threeunderthrufive over the same C&D and even more amazingly, 2.7 faster than Pic D’Orhy, who captured the Grade 1 Ascot Chase over half a mile shorter. Based on this data, clearly those who took part in the Grade 2 novice chase are all very useful and are worth noting wherever they go next. On that point, the winner is likely to miss Cheltenham in favour of a tilt at the Grade 1 over three miles at Aintree, but the runner-up could be a possible contender for the National Hunt Chase if pulling out of this bruising encounter in one piece.

February 17 – Gowran –  Saint Sam – 72

Back from a 153-day absence, there was a slight doubt beforehand whether Willie Mullins’ inmate would be sharp enough – or more to the point cope with the testing conditions – up against race-fit Riviere D’Etel but no sooner had the tapes crashed back, the answer was clear for all to see. Setting off a fair rate of knots, the son of Saint Des Saints jumped and travelled well for the first two miles and even though his main market rival looked a potential threat three out, he quickly extinguished that particular flame, pulling clear again late on. Likely to stay in this lane for the foreseeable future, he should continue to be a cash cow in Grade 2 and 3’s over in Ireland.

February 17 – Gowran – Langtry Lady – 69

Due to her long absence, the market predictably shifted away from Henry De Bromhead’s mare in favour of race-fit What’s Up Darling but the negativity proved to be way off the mark. Once the main two in the betting reeled in the front running Doyen To Win, it became a straight match from two out and it was a fight that didn’t last long either, with the daughter of Saint Des Saints soon getting on top. Striding purposely all the way to the line, she left the impression she had plenty more to give and it will be interesting to see how she is campaigned for the rest of the season. Clearly a lover of soft ground, she would need testing conditions to be a major factor at Cheltenham but with the winter we have been experiencing, who’s to say that might not turn out to be the case.

February 18 – Punchestown – Tullyhill – 74

A reasonable assembly of novices that faced the starter for this listed contest and it was a chance for one of the field to book their ticket to Cheltenham. Strong in the market beforehand, Willie Mullins’ grey set his stall out right from the start and at no stage did he ever look likely to relinquish his advantage. Clocking one of the fastest speed figures recorded by a novice hurdler so far this season, the son of Martaline has to come into the Supreme Hurdle conversation – his only Cheltenham entry – based on this evidence, and it will now just become a question of how his handler shuffles his pack accordingly closer to the festival. Likely to go down the two mile route with this fella, unless supplemented for the Baring Bingham, the master of Closutton could end up switching Ballyburn for the 2m4f contest and run Mystical Power alongside him. Of course this is pure guesswork on our part but sometimes you have to read between the lines and go with your gut instinct.