In something of a rarity the last racing week was bookended by top-class meetings and makes for a blog full of quality performances. We kick off by contextualising an amazing sixth Betfair Chase success for Paul Nicholls in just the 10th running, and via Ascot end up back to the start of the period for the third-day highlight from the Cheltenham's Open.
SILVINIACO CONTI SHOWS THE BENEFIT OF A RUN AND CHEEKPIECES
In 2012, Silviniaco Conti ran in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby and subsequently won the Betfair Lancashire Chase, writes Phil Smith. Last year Paul Nicholls couldn't get a prep run into him and he finished only third at Haydock. This year the Charlie Hall was again Silviniaco Conti's starting point for the season and he repeated his victory in the first Grade 1 chase of the season.
There was a point at which it looked as if Menorah was going to get the better of him for the second time this season, but there was more in Silviniaco Conti's tank and with the cheek pieces surely a help he pulled away from the last to win by a long-looking two lengths, which I called 3lb.
It would have been churlish to say that this was not at least the equal of Menorah's best ever performance so I looked back two seasons to the spring of 2013 when he was just beaten by First Lieutenant and then ran a brilliant race at Cheltenham off a mark of 169, when narrowly touched off by Champion Court.
He ended that season on 169 in the Anglo-Irish Jump Classifications. I had another look at the Charlie Hall and felt that his four length victory there could easily have been five lengths, which would have given him another 169 performance. This brought Silviniaco Conti out on 172 which was the performance I gave him when he won this race in 2012.
When I looked at the race average of the winning performance over the last five years it came to 172.4. Whilst performances of 170+ always come under the closest scrutiny at our end of season review I was pretty confident this justifies that figure, particularly as the race was run nearly 14 seconds faster than the very competitive handicap run 35 minutes later.
The Grade 2 Coral Ascot Hurdle on Saturday marked the return of Faugheen who was (and still is) the ante-post favourite for the Champion Hurdle in March, writes Chris Nash.
Willie Mullins' six-year-old was rated 161 after his novice season - a figure which put him firmly in the driving seat for Saturday's race - and he took the prize in smooth style.
The race was run at just a steady pace and six of the seven-strong field were still bunched turning in but they soon sorted themselves out to the extent that the form looks to make quite a bit of sense.
The winner was never fully extended but still managed to come home three-and-three-quarter lengths clear of Blue Fashion, who was a further five lengths clear of Lac Fontana. The runner-up arrived rated 152 and looks to provide a sensible guide to the form. In giving him 4lb and a near-four-length beating Faugheen returned a figure of 160+. Lac Fontana was generally progressive in his novice season and continued that trend, improving 3lb to 151.
The ease of his victory means that Faugheen is better than the bare figure he recorded but quantifying how much more he is worth is not easy. I'll be suggesting a figure of 164 to my Irish counterpart, which still places him behind several other Champion Hurdle hopes including Jezki (169), The New One (167) and Hurricane Fly (169). However Faugheen has improved with every run so far and with further progress looking likely he's clearly a leading contender for the big one in March.
ALL'S WELL WITH AL
Old friends were reunited on Saturday when Ruby Walsh teamed up with Al Ferof for the first time since their Paddy Power Gold Cup victory in November 2012, writes John de Moraville.
And, by outclassing his rivals in Ascot's Amlin 1965 Chase, the popular grey returned to his best mark of 168 - precisely the figure he achieved in that red-hot Cheltenham handicap two autumns ago.
In last year's Amlin Al Ferof strolled home in a match. This time he was made to work a bit harder and it was difficult not to be impressed by the way he strode away from Somersby after the final fence.
Whether this was the performance of a potential King George winner though must be open to doubt as both times the nine-year-old has run over 3m (including when third to superior stable-mate Silviniaco Conti in the Kempton showpiece last Christmas) he has been found wanting.
Earlier in the week Uxizandre, a Grade 1 novice winner at Aintree last spring, maintained his steady progression by making all the running in Cheltenham's Shloer Chase - his first attempt at the minimum trip over fences - notching a career-best rating of 161.
His trainer Alan King already houses a leading contender for the big 2m prizes in Balder Succes (163) but in slick-jumping Uxizandre he has a horse that would not be out of place in either the Queen Mother Champion Chase or the Ryanair.
GREAT RIDE BAGS THE GREATWOOD
Betting for the StanJames.com Greatwood Handicap Hurdle on the last day of Cheltenham's Open Meeting was dominated by three horses, all of whom looked to have outstanding claims, writes David Dickinson.
The favourite Vaniteux was beginning just his second winter of racing having concluded the first one by failing to justify Barry Geraghty's faith when he picked him in preference to Josses Hill in the Supreme at the Festival. Would he improve on his return to action? It seemed very likely. Second favourite was the Willie Mullins-trained Clondaw Warrior, raised 40lb on the Flat since his last run over hurdles. Third in was Sandown winner Exitas, officially 9lb well in under a 5lb penalty for a wide-margin win after the weights came out.
A closer study of the race revealed a problem for the whole field, however. There was not a single front runner on show but almost as seriously, there were a good number of the competitors who were going to want to sit last or very close to last.
Predictably, the tape went back and nothing happened. Equally predictably it was the jockey in form, Richard Johnson, who took the initiative on Garde La Victoire. This sizeable chasing type is presumably one of those horses 'just marking time' until sent over the larger obstacles. Well, as bonuses go, the Greatwood is a pretty good one.
Just how much of a fluke was his victory? He looks like a horse who will continue to progress although it goes without saying that he will not always get the run of the race in this manner. He followed a wide course coming down the hill, unlike his nearest rival Vaniteux, who gave the inside to no one. Only time will tell whether those tactics helped or hindered the runner-up.
I used the admirably-consistent fifth Pine Creek as my benchmark, putting Garde La Victoire up 9lb to 153. His trainer doesn't yet see him as a Champion Hurdle contender but his physique suggests his improvement will continue. Given the apparent dearth of top 2m hurdlers outside the care of Willie Mullins another handicap win would have to put him in the picture.
The New One confirmed his place as the top rated British 2m hurdler with a fluent if unspectacular success in the inaugural running of Haydock's Betfair Price Rush Hurdle. This he was able to achieve without matching his 2013/14 rating of 167.