The action came thick and fast at Haydock Park on Saturday, with four Grade Two races and some impressive performances from some real Cheltenham Festival contenders.
Here, Graham Clark takes a look at five things we can take from the weekend …
ROYALE CONTINUES TO RISE THROUGH THE RANKS
One of the biggest conundrums to arise from the weekend is what route connections will take with Royale Pagaille, who completed a hat-trick of wins for the season with an emphatic 16-length success in the Peter Marsh Chase.
A 16lb rise in the weights for his previous victory at Kempton Park was not enough to prevent the Venetia Williams-trained gelding from running riot over his rivals under Tom Scudamore in the Grade Two contest.
Royale Pagaille holds Cheltenham Festival entries in the Marsh Novices’ Chase, Festival Novices’ Chase, the National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Jockeys’ Novices’ Chase and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and whichever he lines up he will be competitive.
With owner Rich and Susannah Ricci also responsible for ante-post Festival Novices’ Chase favourite Monkfish and a drop back to two and a half miles to take on Envoi Allen in the Marsh Novices’ Chase seemingly unlikely, it could help narrow the options down.
In a season in which many of the leading Gold Cup contenders have failed to stamp their authority on the division, it may sway connections to go down that route, even more so with it being one of the few major races at The Festival his leading owner has yet to capture.
Another step forward would be required again from Royale Pagaille to be a major contender in the Gold Cup – and he has to prove he stays the 3m 2 1/2f trip - but judging by his latest success he could easily take both in his stride.
BUVEUR BEATEN BUT THERE ARE STILL POSITIVES
Those expecting Buveur D’Air to come out and walk all over his two rivals in The New One Unibet Hurdle would have been disappointed to see the dual Champion Hurdle winner taste defeat on his return in the Grade Two - but there were plenty of positives to take out of his first performance on a racecourse in more than 400 days.
With that kind of time off the track there was always going to be a question mark over Buveur D’Air’s race fitness, especially against a pair of rivals who had run a combined total of seven times this season.
Aside from the end result the slick hurdling technique that has been a key weapon in helping him scale the heights appeared to still be there, with his jumping pretty much faultless throughout.
Although no horse over the age of 10 has won the Unibet Champion Hurdle since an 11-year-old Sea Pigeon claimed the second of his back in 1981, it would be foolish to write off the chances of one of JP McManus’s great hurdlers tasting victory in the Grade One for a third time on March 16.
HALLMARK OF SUCCESS FOR O’BRIEN
Silver Hallmark may have had his task in the Read Nicky Henderson’s Unibet Blog Novices’ Chase made easier following the mid-race fall of odds-on favourite Allart, but there was plenty to like about the manner in which Fergal O’Brien’s charge put the Grade Two prize to bed.
Making only his fifth start under rules and second over fences, the seven year old put in solid performance from the front in less than ideal conditions to go one better than his debut over fences at Exeter.
There may not be any fancy entries next to his name for the Cheltenham Festival, but that may be no bad thing for a horse which O’Brien is keen to take his time with in order to help realise his full potential.
While a trip to The Festival appears off the agenda for Silver Hallmark, a step up to Grade One company for the Manifesto Novices’ Chase at the Randox Grand National Festival at Aintree could well be on the agenda, should conditions be suitable.
Watch this space.
MAROWN LOOKS A STAR OF THE FUTURE
One look at Marown suggests he is the type of staying chaser that his owner Trevor Hemmings has enjoyed plenty of success with down the years and given time the Milan gelding could be another to give connections more big race glory.
Having appeared to appreciate the step up to 2m 4 1/2f when getting off the mark at Ayr on his penultimate start the Nicky Richards-trained seven year old didn’t look out of place behind Silver Hallmark in the Altcar Novices’ Chase.
Though he didn’t quite have the gears to go with Silver Hallmark during the closing stages of the 2m 4f contest there was more than enough to suggest that with a further step up in trip there is likely to be plenty more to come.
He could be the ideal type next season to make his mark in races like the Tommy Whittle and the Peter Marsh back at the Merseyside track, and further down the line develop into a contender for the race his owner prides above all else - the Randox Grand National.
TENACIOUS FAIVOIR CONTINUES PERFECT PARTNERSHIP WITH ANDREWS
Faivoir moved up a few positions in the pecking order at the yard of Dan Skelton after his tenacious success in the Sky Bet Supreme Trial Rossington Main Novices’ Hurdle.
Looking destined for second at best the six year old showed an admirable attitude to overhaul Minella Drama in the closing strides of the Grade Two to make it four wins from as many appearances under Bridget Andrews.
Though quoted for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and next month’s Betfair Hurdle at Newbury it is unlikely Faivoir will line up in either, given he appears at his best in smaller fields.
Having appeared to need every yard of the 1m 7 1/2f prize it would come as no surprise to see Faivoir racing over further sooner rather than later. To the Skeltons, however, he has already done his job for the season ahead of a switch to fences next term.