Oscar Whisky won his sixth race at Cheltenham Image reproduced with the kind permission of Cheltenham Racecourse

Oscar Whisky won his sixth race at Cheltenham
Image reproduced with the kind permission of Cheltenham Racecourse

The racing year 2014 began as the old year left off for Willie Mullins as he bagged the two big races on New Year’s Day at Cheltenham and Tramore.

Annie Power travelled to England for a rematch with Zarakandar in the Dornan Engineering Hurdle over 2 miles, 4 and a half furlongs, in desperate conditions which saw Cheltenham rain lashed and battered with gale force winds – not to mention heavy ground.

Ruby Walsh’s mare had beaten Paul Nicholls’ Zarkandar easily at Ascot and met him here on less favourable terms but the result was even more emphatic. Nicholls other runner Empire Levant made the running early but coming down the hill for the final time the two main principals had the race between them with the mare in front on the inside and Daryl Jacob on Zarkandar poised to pounce if good enough.

In the home straight however, as hard as Zarkandar tried – under great pressure, he could not get to Annie Power and she ultimately stretched away effortlessly to record her ninth consecutive victory. She remains unbeaten and it will now be fascinating to see which race Mullins and connections opt for with a horse that we do not seem to have gotten to the bottom of yet.

This result probably ended Zarkandar’s aspirations as a Champion Hurdle prospect and longer term one wonder if novice chasing beckons for this tough and consistent horse.

Earlier on the card, Oscar Whisky put in his best effort to date as a novice chaser, winning the Dipper Chase comfortably and jumping well throughout. On the whole his previous tendency to jump to his right was less evident here and he continued Nicky Henderson’s fine recent run of form.

As they turned for home, all four runners were virtually in a line but Oscar Whisky and old rival Taquin Du Seuil – who had beaten the former when giving him weight in November, pulled clear. A good jump at the last fence saw Oscar Whisky set sail for home up the Cheltenham hill and he was a smooth winner of his sixth race at the course, reinforcing his Jewson Novices’ Chase credentials in the process.

The card got underway with a slightly surprising result as the unexposed Aubusson – ridden by the improving amateur rider Lizzie Kelly, ran out an authoritative winner of the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle. The Nick Williams trained horse shattered a few lofty reputations here, including Ballyalton, the previously unbeaten Racing Pulse and Royal Regatta – and was given a well-judged ride by Kelly, who was making her debut against professional riders and the pair handled the conditions perfectly.

This looks a horse of real promise and afterwards Kelly suggested he may yet be open to more growth – which would suggest he has plenty more strengthening to do and could be one for the future.

Harry Fry’s progressive 8 year old Mendip Express continued his ascent up the chasing ranks in a gruelling Foundation Developments Ltd Handicap Chase over 3 miles 2 and a half furlongs, with several fences omitted due to standing water around the obstacles. In the event, Mendip Express made one serious error but recovered and was travelling best as the leaders all whittled away and Alfie Spinner ultimately provided the main competition. Mendip Express galloped on resolutely under 11 stone 7 pounds though and was a 5 length winner, with Ballypatrick staying on promisingly in third ahead of that dour galloper Our Island.

One would imagine Mendip Express might be aimed at something like the 3 mile handicap chase at the Cheltenham Festival and he may have further improvement in him – like Annie Power, he seems to have that winning habit.

The Fairlawne Handicap Chase went the way of Double Ross, who recently won the December Gold Cup and was able to defy a 7 pound rise in the weights here. In winning, Double Ross provided his dam Kinross with a remarkable double after Mr Moonshine’s earlier victory at Musselburgh. Double Ross meanwhile, remains a hugely progressive young chaser and trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies hinted after this win that he might revert to novice chasing in his next race. The Topham Chase has been mooted as a possible longer term target.

Musselburgh also hosted a very interesting juvenile hurdle which went the way of John Quinn’s Rutherglen. This ex-Flat recruit is now three wins out of three and was a ready winner here. The yard has a formidable record in the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham and this could well develop into a serious contender that flies slightly under the bookmakers’ radar.

At Fakenham, another ex-Flat horse made his mark as the former Royal Ascot winner Fennell Bay was an easy winner of the maiden hurdle race. Now under the care of John Ferguson, Fennell Bay was able to bide his time and when given the office by Jack Quinlan, he quickened away really powerful. This was a tiny race but it was the starting point for a name we might well hear more of this spring at the major festivals.

In Ireland, the big race of the day was at Tramore, where the Holden Plant Rentals Chase saw a classy field assemble. Marito, who was last seen chasing Hurricane Fly home over hurdles, reverted to chasing in this contest and loomed up to the smart Roi Du Mee in the home straight and quickened away from his rival in brilliant fashion. He has hurdles or chasing options available now and is another Willie Mullins inmate with a big future ahead of him, with possibly the Ryanair Chase the most likely target now.


Other news

Nicky Henderson confirmed today that Sprinter Sacre will have further tests whilst cantering on Friday, to determine whether the irregular heart-beat he suffered last week has indeed corrected itself without the need for treatment.

The racing world will hope this is the case and the Sprinter Sacre can continue his racing career without further mishap.

Sadly we probably won’t see Flemenstar, a rival to Sprinter Sacre at Aintree last April, again this season, after trainer Tony Martin confirmed he is suffering a tendon injury and is unlikely to run again this term.

It has also been announced in Ireland that Davy Russell, twice crowned Champion Jockey in Ireland, is no longer going to ride as first jockey to the powerful Gigginstown House Stud. Russell has enjoyed immense success for Gigginstown, including Weapons Amnesty’s two Cheltenham Festival wins and those of Sir Des Champs.

It is rumoured that Gigginstown are looking to bring in Bryan Cooper, who impressed so many people with his brilliant performances at Cheltenham last March.

Whilst Cooper is a fantastic young jockey with a long and successful future ahead of him, Course-specialist.co.uk is disappointed for Russell who still has plenty to offer trainers on either side of the Irish Sea.