Cheltenham staged a bumper trials day card last Saturday with the usual top-class menu of races supplemented by some high-quality contests that had been added to the programme following their abandonment earlier in the season.
As a result, there were Festival clues to be found everywhere and here we focus on five key contests that really caught our eye.
The opening race of the day was the aptly named the JCB Triumph Trial Hurdle - a juvenile hurdle over 2m - and whilst the winner of the actual Triumph Hurdle in March may not have been running, the race did highlight the strength in depth of the Irish in this division.
The winner, Comfort Zone, has now plundered two of our biggest juvenile hurdles and he showed again here that stamina is his forte by out staying Scriptwriter on the run in.
The pair pulled nicely clear of the rest, despite both shouldering penalties, and Comfort Zone could be a strong each way play at the Festival if there is plenty of juice in the ground on Gold Cup day.
STAGE STAR & PANIC ATTACK
Next up was a handicap chase that looks sure to throw up plenty of future winners, including at the Festival. Indeed, the winners of this race in both 2019 (Mister Whitaker) and 2020 (Simply The Betts), followed up with big wins in March.
The winner of this year’s renewal of the Timeform Novices’ Handicap - Stage Star - was particularly impressive as he won with plenty in hand, despite having 12 stone on his back.
He wouldn’t look out of place in one of the Graded novice chases at the Festival, with the Turners Novices' Chase being the obvious target.
The second and third, Datsalrightgino and Unexpected Party will both surely make their presence felt in handicaps as the season progresses, but the one who really caught our eye behind the impressive winner was the fourth placed Panic Attack.
She made a bad mistake at the 10th and looked sure to drop away but seemed to get a second wind coming to the second last and stayed on up the hill in eye-catching fashion.
It has been a while since there has been any cross-country action at Cheltenham, with the corresponding race at the November meeting having to be called off due to unsuitable ground.
So, it was no surprise to see a high-quality field head to post for the Grenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase.
Amongst them was last year’s Festival hero (or villain to Tiger Roll fans), Delta Work.
As a result of that effort he had to carry top weight here, but despite the ground being plenty quick enough for him he ran a perfect trial for March by staying on nicely into third behind Back On The Lash (who was in receipt of over a stone).
If the rains come in the second week of March, Delta Work could turn into a banker for many punters.
EDITEUR DU GITE & EDWARDSTONE
The race of the day was arguably the rescheduled Clarence House Chase, which saw a thrilling battle between Editeur Du Gite and Edwardstone up the Cheltenham hill.
There was a head between the pair at the line and they could easily be fighting out the finish in similar style in the Queen Mother Champion Chase in a few weeks’ time.
Connections of both horses certainly had plenty of reasons to be cheerful.
For Editeur Du Gite’s owners this was proof that their horse belongs at the top table and even better ground in March could see him improve further.
We had highlighted him as "the potential dark horse" for the Champion Chase in our ante-post Festival preview two weeks ago when available at 25/1 and he's now just 5/1.
Meanwhile, Edwardstone came there to win his race at the last only to pay for not settling in the early part of the contest. He’ll surely strip even fitter come the big day and looks the one to beat given Energumene’s disappointing effort.
If the duel between Editeur Du Gite and Edwardstone was the most exciting of the day, the most emotional finish came in the Cotswold Chase.
The Gold Cup trial was won by Ahoy Senor just days after his trainer, Lucinda Russell, lost her father, Peter, who was a part owner of the horse.
It was a fully deserved victory for a young chaser who has no end of potential, but who isn’t always the easiest to predict.
At his best, he can undoubtedly be a player in March’s showpiece contest, but we were also impressed by Noble Yeats, who was under pressure from some way out, but who stayed on well from the bottom of the hill to be beaten only 2½ lengths.
He was giving the winner 6lbs here and given that he will relish the extra distance of the Gold Cup, there is every chance he can reverse the form when it matters most.
There were plenty of other noteworthy performances, as there surely will be at the Dublin Racing Festival, which is up next - then all roads lead to Prestbury Park…