'Red' could be colour in wide-open blue riband
All eyes were on the Cheltenham's Trials on Saturday as the gauntlet was laid down for a return to the Cotswolds in just over six weeks but few of the weekend's protagonists are likely to make a serious impact at the Festival. One exception might be Definitly Red, however.
For all old-fashioned scribes, the misspelling is infuriating but allegedly Brian Ellison's star chaser derives his name from his original trainer in Ireland wanting to enter him in a point-to-point and shouting out across a pub: "How do you spell 'definitely?'"
It was a good week for the Moira point-to-point as Definitly Red's first career run came at the Armagh track when runner-up to recent Thyestes Chase second Wounded Warrior and there was much to admire about his display in the Cotswold Chase.
After disputing the lead in the final mile, Ellison's nine-year-old asserted control coming around the home bend and powered up the hill leaving good horses like American and Bristol De Mai eating his dust.
With doubts hanging over much of the Gold Cup field, Definitly Red (20/1) is no forlorn hope for the blue riband and Ellison will dare to dream. Will Might Bite remain on a straight course or compromise his shot at racing immortality?
What Sizing John will turn up to defend his crown? Is Our Duke the same horse we saw skate to Irish Grand National success last year after a back operation? Questions remain on all three fronts and if it comes ups soft, 'Red' may be the danger.
Another to make it into the winner's enclosure was Apple's Shakira, although some of the divided opinion around her victory would almost suggest the 1/7 favourite was turned over.
In her two previous runs for Nicky Henderson, there was never an element of doubt as she drew clear readily without having to extend herself but this was different and Look My Way made a real race of it as Tom Scudamore set a searching gallop.
With two to jump there were questions asked and the JP McManus-owned four-year-old was scrubbed up by Barry Geraghty but the response was everything you'd want and expect as she was taken out of her comfort zone and still delivered.
Call me crazy but I'd much rather know before the Festival how she will respond under pressure. No race will be won easily in March and class alone will not suffice so her place at the head of the Triumph Hurdle market is well and truly cemented.
It's rare that a Mares' Novices' Hurdle would get the juices flowing but day three of the Festival could throw up one of the battles of the week after both Maria's Benefit and Laurina surged to the head of the market, albeit in different circumstances.
Maria's Benefit made every post a winning one at Doncaster en route to her fifth consecutive win in game fashion while Willie Mullins' Laurina oozed class as she landed the Grade Three Solerina Mares Hurdle. In MMA, they say styles make fights and their contrasting approaches could make this one a belter.
Speaking of Mullins, Rich Ricci's comments saying he's "hopeful" that the brilliant Douvan could continue his miraculous recovery to take on Altior in what would be a stellar Champion Chase certainly make the heart yearn for March - it can't come quick enough
Barring a mishap, Mullins' other superstar, Faugheen, will return this weekend in the Irish Champion Hurdle as excitement builds for the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown with the potential clash of Footpad and Petit Mouchoir in the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase offering more clues on the road to Cheltenham.
TO say Maria's Benefit is tough as old boots would be doing Stuart Edmunds' mare a disservice and she booked her ticket for the Mares' Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham with another gutsy front-running display at Doncaster on Saturday, galvanised by the excellent conditional jockey Ciarán Gethings.
THE PUNTER'S PAL
Cartright was friendless in the market (20/1) for the opening maiden hurdle in Gowran Park before finishing a creditable second to Scarpeta and another Gordon Elliott drifter Edene D'arc (14/1) went one better in the concluding bumper for Declan Lavery.
TWEET OF THE WEEKEND
"I hope the chap who tweeted me today about female jockeys has missed a couple of decent winners at Cheltenham."
- Sky Sports News and At The Races presenter Alex Hammond revels in the victories of Bryony Frost and Lizzie Kelly at the Cotswolds on Saturday.