There will be plenty of Cheltenham Festival clues on offer this weekend, including within the Hunter Chase division, with leading trials for the Cheltenham Foxhunters set to take place on both sides of the Irish Sea this weekend.
On Saturday, the Walrus Hunter Chase, which is one of the leading Hunter Chases on the British calendar, will feature Road To Rome as he seeks to extend his unbeaten run this season and bring up his seventh victory of the campaign in the 2m 6f contest at Haydock.
A winner of two consecutive hunter chases at Ludlow in 2019, the nine-year-old is as big as 20/1 in the ante-post market for the Cheltenham despite all he has achieved this season.
Sam Waley-Cohen’s mount will face seven rivals, including the return to action of two Foxhunter champions in Dineur and Pacha Du Polder.
The latter is a Cheltenham Foxhunters regular and won the last two renewals, including his narrow victory over Top Wood in last year’s renewal.
His rider from that day, Harriet Tucker, resumes her partnership with the Paul Nicholls-trained 12-year-old, having had an operation during the summer to rectify a shoulder problem which saw her ride the finish of the Foxhunters with a dislocated shoulder.
Dineur has not seen the racecourse since defeating Balnaslow to win the 2017 Aintree Foxhunters for Mikey Bowen, and the 13-year-old veteran performer must now overcome a 681-day absence as a result.
This year’s Cheltenham Foxhunters picture is a lot less clear at this point of the season than it may have been in previous years, however a number of the leading British contenders have been in action in recent weeks.
Hazel Hill, a horse that began his racing life running between the flags in Ireland for his breeder Patrick Moakley, heads the home teams challenge for the Foxhunters.
A general 6/1 shot following his wide-margin victory at Warwick last month for Philip Rowley, Hazel Hill is joined by the likes of Thursday’s Kelso winner Shantou Flyer, and the ex-Willie Mullins Cheltenham Festival-third, Haymount, who was the winner of a Sherrif Hutton open last month for Tom Ellis, as some of the other leading British contenders.
Irish horses currently fill the first two places in the Cheltenham ante-post market, with Stand Up And Fight, who last month saw his unbeaten run this season come to an end at Kilfeacle, heading the betting at 4/1.
Ucello Conti, who is just over a point bigger in the ante-post market, has already sealed his ticket to the Cheltenham Festival, with recent victories at Aghabullogue and Thurles, and he will continue his preparations for the Festival when he lines up for the Boardsmill Stud Hunter Chase at Navan on Sunday.
Formerly the big Foxhunters trial in Ireland when run as the Raymond Smith as part of the Irish Gold Cup card at Leopardstown, the race was controversially bumped from that race programme for the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival, and moves to the Meath venue following requests from trainers for the race to be run at a left-handed course.
That followed a disappointing turnout of just four horses when the race was run right-handed at Punchestown last year in its first year away from Leopardstown.
The move to Navan has boosted the race, however with its new date two weeks later than it was originally run on the Irish Gold Cup card, many trainers have felt the race was too late to fit into their Festival preparations, with what are in many cases, older horses that need further time to recover from their races.
Ucello Conti certainly won’t have things his own way on Sunday, with opposition coming from the reigning champion point-to-pointer Sydney Paget, who now goes down the hunter chase route following a ground-interrupted campaign between the flags which saw him chase home Ucello Conti at Aghabullogue last month, whilst Timewaitsfornoone finished second in last year’s Champion Hunter Chase at the Punchestown Festival.
.@gelliott_racing's smart chaser Ucello Conti justifies favouritism in the Hunter Chase @thurlesraces in the colours of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede.%uD83D%uDC0E%uD83D%uDC4F— Racing TV (@RacingTV) January 20, 2019
Aine O'Connor up okay after her tumble at the last.
Results %u27A1 https://t.co/7iJOPsdIyZ pic.twitter.com/KYLbDArahq