Many Clouds confirmed his status as worthy Gold Cup candidate with a fine victory at Cheltenham on Saturday.
In a slowly-run edition of the Betbright Chase, he dominated proceedings from a long way out, jumping well as Leighton Aspell dictated the pace astutely. Smad Place and Dynaste finished strongly to press the winner up the hill, but Aspell had kept a bit up his sleeve.
At the line, Many Clouds was going away again. He is a straightforward horse, and, while you might wonder if the bare form would be strong enough for him to compete in a Gold Cup run at the usual frenetic pace, he is clearly still improving. Moreover, Silviniaco Conti apart, there is very little to choose between the remainder in the rank of elite staying chasers.
On Saturday, Smad Place was 12lbs better off with Many Clouds for their Hennessy clash. While he didn't get the clearest run and he was sluggish when it mattered over the final two fences, he got much closer to Oliver Sherwood's charge, although he was still unable to exploit an eight-pound concession.
Dynaste is a solid yardstick. He was less than two lengths behind the winner, and anyone fancying him to come into his own again on better ground in the Ryanair Chase would have to have been happy. He stays, but he is simply more effective on better ground over shorter. Taking his rating of 167 into account, it gives you an idea of what Many Clouds achieved.
The son of Cloudings, a three-parts brother to The Tullow Tank, won the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury off a mark of 151, with the handicapper subsequently raising him to 161. Many Clouds will probably find himself five or six pounds shy of Silviniaco Conti's 174 now, so he will arrive back at Cheltenham in March second only to the dual King George VI Chase hero of the British challenge.
The bookmakers make him a best-priced 10/1 third-favourite for glory, so both the handicappers and the layers rate his chance superior to that of Djakadam, the other big mover last week. I wouldn't disagree with that stance at all.
Willie Mullins' charge failed to cope with Many Clouds and Co in the Hennessy, but his Thyestes Chase triumph showed that he could be a player at the top level. While he won by eight lengths on Thursday, he would have beaten The Job Is Right by four or five had that one stood up at the last fence.
There is no doubt that it was a cracking performance under 11st 10lb. On the other hand, remember that a 12lb hike still leaves him with an official mark of just 157, which reaffirms the impression that he still has plenty to find. Djakadam's main negatives are his relative lack of experience and the possibility that he needs deep ground to excel.
It would be some feat if a six-year-old horse that has had just five runs over fences were to win a Gold Cup. The last horse to win it at six was Arkle's old foe Mill House back in 1963, and there is a world of difference between jumping from fence to fence in deep ground and having to get every fence spot on at breakneck speed around Cheltenham, where Djakadam crashed four-out in the JLT last March whilst still in contention.
All of Djakadam's four most impressive wins have come on really testing ground. He is by Saints Des Saints, whose other Grade One performers have been Quito De La Roque and Quel Esprit. Throw Lyreen Legend and Irish Saint into the mix and there is no denying that he appears to be a distinct soft-ground influence.
That all said, Djakadam is an emerging force. He is in the right hands, and it would be a surprise if Ruby Walsh rides anything else ahead of him in the Gold Cup, regardless of what happens in the Hennessy Gold Cup in a fortnight.
On His Own and Boston Bob are both admirable operators, but they are 11 and 10 years old, respectively. They are what they are, which is surely just shy of what's required to win anything other than a very sub-standard Gold Cup.
Djakadam's star is in the ascent. There is no knowing the heights that he might reach, so I'd be amazed if Walsh eschews the chance to ride him.
Paul Nicholls still hasn't entirely ruled Silviniaco Conti out of the Denman Chase at Newbury, though the likelihood is that the Hennessy will be the only meaningful Gold Cup trial left, with Road To Riches going straight to Cheltenham.
The reigning champion Lord Windermere has yet to play his hand. It was a similar story last year and we know he is being trained to peak in the Cotswolds come March.
There have certainly been signs of life in his two outings this term, but it would be nice to see him build on those by making a real impact at Leopardstown.
Roll on February 8.
Peace breaks out at Cheltenham
Peace And Co cemented his place at the head of the Triumph Hurdle betting with a measured display at Prestbury Park on Saturday.
Barry Geraghty set out to teach him something by settling him, a task made more difficult when they crawled in front. Nicky Henderson's charge still won tidily and, off a proper gallop in the Triumph, he could take some beating.
The other significant contest was the Cleeve Hurdle, in which Saphir Du Rheu knuckled down gamely to see off the old warrior Reve De Sivola. Paul Nicholls' decision to abort his chasing career looks typically shrewd, given the open nature of the World Hurdle.
At Doncaster, Analifet found nil when she came off the bridle in the mares' race. Ruby Walsh's mount finished third, a couple of places ahead of Princess Leya.
Trader could be Swan's final winner
Charlie Swan saddled what might prove to be the final winner of his training career when Rogue Trader (6/1) hacked up in Navan's two-mile maiden hurdle on Saturday.
The legendary Tipperary-based former champion jockey expects to saddle one or two more runners before he signs off, with Drumlee entered at Thurles on Thursday. Nina Carberry rode Rogue Trader, but her brother Paul missed out when Snow Falcon (1/1) landed the longer edition in similarly facile style for Ger Fox.
Noel Meade's stable jockey broke a rib when Waxies Dargle fell at Leopardstown last week, and Meade suggested on Saturday that he remains in some discomfort.
In the beginners' chase, Sandra Hughes' Bryan Cooper-ridden Apache Jack (10/11 fav) ran out a fortuitous winner after Gilt Shadow's last-fence exit. On its first start for a year, Stuart Crawford's smart Beneficial gelding galloped and jumped with plenty enthusiasm under Andrew Lynch.
He was clear at the last before flinging himself at the fence in a haphazard manner that was completely out of sync with what had gone before. If he is none the worse, connections will still have taken plenty encouragement from his overall performance.
Winners all round
'The Punter' pull-out out delivered in all corners again this weekend, with Saphir Du Rheu one of five winners advised by Davy Condon. The 3/1 Cheltenham winner was also put forward by Wayne Bailey, whose Lingfield tip Loyalty (10/1) was the pick of his three advised winners.
Tweet of the weekend
Willie Mullins (@WillieMullinsNH): It's a privilege to train such a wonderful horse as #HurricaneFly and be part of his record-breaking career @BHPInsurances @LeopardstownRC - Five years after his last tweet, Willie Mullins is compelled to embrace social media on what was a memorable day for the trainer at Leopardstown.
40,000 - The increase in euros in prize money for this year's Tattersalls Gold Cup at the Curragh, despite the 10-furlong Group One being at risk of downgrade next year following a second warning in three years over the lack of depth to its line-up.