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Cheltenham update: Championship race contenders

The cold snap ensured that the bulk of the UK and Ireland's weekend racing programme was lost to frozen ground, including the second afternoon of Cheltenham's International meeting on Saturday.

With the National Hunt season about to head into the busy festive period, we take a look at the Cheltenham Festival's four Championship races and how the main protagonists are shaping up as the season reaches halfway.

Champion Hurdle: Constitution Hill rules the roost

Winner of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle last season, Constitution Hill now stands tall at 1/3 to prove himself the best two-miler in the business come 14th March.

The Nicky Henderson inmate oozed class in his comeback win at Newcastle in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle and will be expected to rubberstamp that success by adding Christmas Hurdle success at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Constitution Hill is the most exciting horse in training for many people now and is going to be very hard to topple.

Of course, his main rival has added fuel to the hype machine by fluffing her lines on her own seasonal comeback. Honeysuckle was beaten for the first time in her career in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle, only third behind Teahupoo and Klassical Dream at Fairyhouse.

Her defenders will point to very testing ground over the two-and-a-half-mile trip as mitigation but her air of invincibility is shattered nonetheless.

The great mare, winner of the last two Champion Hurdles, is likely to go for the Irish version at Leopardstown in February before returning to the Cotswolds.

She's as big as 9/1 now to retain her crown, with Henry De Bromhead even suggesting she might be pointed instead at the Mares' Hurdle. Amid all the talk of 'ducking and diving', such a decision would surely be unfathomable to many.

Willie Mullins' State Man at 5/1 is the closest to Constitution Hill in the betting after his Morgiana Hurdle win, while the likes of 12/1 Vauban and 25/1 Sir Gerhard have yet to play their cards yet this season.

Champion Chase: Energumene faces a new challenger

Cork was the only jumps meeting that beat the frost over the weekend and their Grade 2 Hilly Way Chase saw Energumene impressively scoring for Mullins and Paul Townend.

It's hard to suggest he achieved much, dominating in front and pulling clear of three rivals with consummate ease, but Energumene is now 10/11 for a Queen Mother Champion Chase repeat on 15th March.

Last year his great rival was Shishkin, who of course defeated him in a Clarence House cracker at Ascot in January, but that Henderson inmate is now 16/1 following his Tingle Creek third.

Pulled up in the Champion Chase, where a rare bone condition was put forward as mitigation, Shishkin could not get himself back on track in the Sandown Grade 1 and talk is now surrounding the possibility he'll step up in trip.

The Tingle Creek, meanwhile, went to Alan King's Edwardstone in fine style. Winner of the Arkle back in the spring, can he graduate from star novice to Champion Chase in 12 months?

He's second-choice in the betting at 9/4 and looks a big player on the evidence offered at Sandown.

The lack of depth in the two-mile chasing division is emphasised by Shishkin being next in the market ahead of the likes of Blue Lord at 20/1, Nube Negra at 20/1 and Greaneteen at 20/1.

None of them are deemed likely to cause Energumene to lose any sleep.

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Stayers' Hurdle: Flooring Porter still the one to beat

Flooring Porter retained his Stayers' Hurdle title last March under a canny Danny Mullins ride from the front and is 9/2 to complete a hat-trick come the spring.

Gavin Cromwell's charge is the one to aim at, but it's a wide open division and there are plenty dangers lurking.

The aforementioned Teahupoo is 8/1, just behind Klassical Dream at 5/1 in the market, and there's no doubting Gordon Elliott's charge looked good in the Hatton's Grace, strongly suggesting he could excel at three-miles.

He does, however, like to see the mud flying and so doubts are there that he'll get his ground come March.

Klassical Dream isn't one to cross off either, while Bob Olinger (14/1) is set to take aim at this contest after his chasing career was aborted by Henry de Bromhead.

He was beaten on his comeback run in Ireland and will have all eyes on him come Christmas at Leopardstown.

Blazing Khal is 6/1 and unknown quantity, though he was impressive last season in winning a pair of three-mile Cheltenham novices.

And then there are the old stagers, Champ at 16/1 and Paisley Park at 25/1 following their super battle at Newbury in November. They showed lots of enthusiasm for the battle and could still be capable of rolling back the years on the evidence of their Newbury efforts.

Gold Cup: Brits advertise their claims

Galopin Des Champs was meant to reappear in the John Durkan at Punchestown on Sunday, though that card was a frost victim and has now been rescheduled for Monday 19th December.

Despite not appearing, Galopin Des Champs remains 9/4 for the Cheltenham Gold Cup on 17th March.

A Plus Tard, so impressive when winning in March, is out to 10/1 after flopping in the Betfair Chase at Haydock last month, though Henry De Bromhead has written off that run in light of a possible allergic reaction.

The champion has questions to answer when he likely he heads for the Savills Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas.

Taking full advantage of his Haydock disappointment was Dan Skelton's Protektorat, now 8/1 for Gold Cup glory having provided his trainer with a statement win in the Merseyside Grade 1.

The grey looks to be an improved performer on that evidence and is one of two British-trained hopefuls to have advertised their credentials positively.

The other is 6/1 L'homme Presse for Venetia Williams, winner of Newcastle's Rehearsal Chase under a big weight on his comeback.

He has Festival-winning form from the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase in March and could be a major player in the Blue Riband in 2023.

Bravemansgame won the bet365 Charlie Hall Chase in October and is favourite for King George glory at Kempton on Boxing Day, though some still quibble about the stamina prospects of the Paul Nicholls charge for the three-and-a-quarter mile Gold Cup, for which he trades at 25/1.

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