It's still January, but it feels as if every weekend horse racing carries significant clues for Cheltenham, now less than eight weeks away.
Across Ireland and the UK, the debate continues to rage about the possible negative effects of the Cheltenham festival on the rest of the National Hunt calendar. This seems to creep further away from the festival on an annual basis.
This weekend the action in Ireland comes from Navan and Thurles while Ascot and Haydock host pattern races across the Irish Sea.
Thurles is often a much-maligned course, given the lack of modern facilities for racegoers, but the racing surface is generally beyond reproach. Sunday sees their feature race of the year the Kinloch Brae Chase, which has been won three times by Gold cup winners in the last decade, including The Don.
— At The Races (@AtTheRaces) January 19, 2017
On Sunday it looks very much a Ryanair prep race for Footpad who is well in at the weights. Willie Mullins' horse hasn't quite lived up to the hype following his dominant novice season.
After a tricky second season, Footpad looks close to his best again. The horse didn't see out the trip in the King George at Kempton, and back in calmer waters on Sunday he can take advantage of advantageous weight conditions to set him up for a tilt at the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham.
The Champion Hurdle looks devoid of a superstar this year at Cheltenham. On Saturday at Haydock Pentland Hills, last year's Triumph hurdle winner will look to stake his claim for potential Champion Hurdle favouritism over stablemate Epatante.
Nicky Henderson's five-year-old was disappointing on seasonal debut in the International hurdle finishing a tired fifth behind stablemate Call Me Lord.
The trainer has been positive about the horse since suggesting Pentland Hills was undercooked first time out, he will strip fitter on Saturday and is a warm order to get back on track.
The Clarence House Chase at Ascot is the only Grade One race of the weekend and it features an intergeneration rematch of the Tingle Creek at Sandown. Second season chaser Defi du Seuil is up against the evergreen 12-year-old Un de Sceaux. Only a neck separated the pair at Sandown before Christmas and the extra rain that has fallen at Ascot will help the older horse.
🗣 “If Defi Du Seuil beats us again, we’ll take it – but there’s no point being in a horsebox, wondering what might have happened."
Un De Sceaux team relishing Defi Du Seuil rematch >>> https://t.co/8qFWVz8oaV pic.twitter.com/WjHeaUpqwD
— Racing TV (@RacingTV) January 13, 2020
It's a crucial race on the way to deciding what races both horses will take part in at the festival, a win for Un de Sceaux and it could set up a brilliant Queen Mother alongside Altior. What a story it would be if the veteran Un de Sceaux gave Willie Mullins his first-ever Champion Chase.
Minella Indo is already a Cheltenham Festival winner, having given Rachael Blackmore her first Grade One in the Albert Bartlett last year. The pair added another Grade One at Punchestown in April.
Allaho tried his best, but they couldn't get to Minella Indo and Rachael Blackmore, who triumph in the Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle @punchestownrace for @HenrydeBromhead 👍👍 pic.twitter.com/aommcf9J3s
— Horse Racing Ireland (@HRIRacing) May 1, 2019
Given his stamina and physical scope, Minella Indo always looked a staying chaser in the making. He has only had one outing over fences, unfortunately, that was also Laurina's chasing debut. At Navan on Saturday Henry de Bromhead's horse gets an ideal opportunity to open his account over fences.
Given how the horse has been campaigned so far, a win at Navan would stamp his ticket to the RSA Chase. The trainer does have a fallback plan should things not work out, as Minella Inod also has an entry for the Stayers Hurdle.
Willie Mullins had his first runner at Market Rasen during the week, a mare called Panic Attack. In a completely predictable turn of events, she bolted up and shot to the head of the Champion Bumper market alongside Eric Bloodaxe.
🗣️"She was very impressive."
Panic Attack scored on debut @MarketRasenRace today and is now the joint favourite for the Champion Bumper 🐎
Read what Willie Mullins and Paul Townend had to say about her victory ⬇️https://t.co/G5KZ5wJjqE pic.twitter.com/oF2XkDKGw6
— Racing TV (@RacingTV) January 16, 2020
The two bumpers in Ireland this weekend feature fascinating runners. Gordon Elliott has never hidden his regard for Eskylane who runs in the last race at Navan on Saturday.
On Sunday Willie Mullins sends a £180,000 purchase form the Tattersall Cheltenham sale to the Thurles bumper. Patrick Mullins will ride Power of Pause. Gordon Elliott runs a quarter-million pounds purchase against him in the shape of Mr Lingo.
Convincing bumper winners at this stage of the season always come into the Cheltenham conversation, there could be more chats after this weekend.