A bumper New Year's Day crowd gathered at Cheltenham on Sunday on the lookout for Festival clues, while Hermes Allen's New Year's Eve victory at Newbury has also enhanced his Ballymore Novices' hopes for March.
While many of the big guns were in action over Christmas in both Britain and Ireland, there were also some potential Festival winners-in-waiting staking their claims at Prestbury Park, including Relkeel Hurdle victor Marie's Rock.
Over two-and-a-half miles the Real Whacker jumped accurately throughout and made all to see off four rivals, including favourite Monmiral, who finished second.
Winning rider Sam Twiston-Davies was full of praise for the horse, saying: "Patrick Neville said his jumping was his strongest asset and to use it and he was spot on."
He added: "My job was to sit, kick, steer and try and get some breathers in somewhere and then press knowing he stayed well later on."
The Real Whacker was introduced at 25/1 to the market for the Turners' Novices Chase at the Cheltenham Festival over the intermediate trip but connections may well decide to step the seven-year-old up in distance.
The performance of the day arguably came in the feature Relkeel Hurdle as reigning Mares' Hurdle winner Marie's Rock marked her seasonal reappearance with a dominant six-length victory.
Trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by Nico de Boinville, Marie's Rock travelled keenly throughout the race before finding plenty for De Boinville's urgings, staying on powerfully up the Cheltenham hill to see off valiant runner-up Dashel Drasher.
"The boss has done a fantastic job with her," De Boinville said. "It's not easy to come in and win like that in that ground first up for the season. She's a true Grade 1 mare."
Marie's Rock is now just from 8/1 to successfully defend the Mares' Hurdle at the festival but she could face fierce competition from dual Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle, who could be rerouted to the Mares' race in an effort to avoid a clash with another Henderson horse, Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner Constitution Hill.
Earlier in the afternoon, the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Weveallbeencaught kept on well to win the Ballymore Maiden Hurdle and he too looks on course to line up at the festival.
Ridden by Sam Twiston-Davies, the six-year-old son of Getaway has previously finished third behind Paul Nicholls' smart Hermes Allen on his hurdles debut in November but made no mistake this time around, beating Rock My Way in the opener at Cheltenham.
Weveallbeencaught's triumph offered a further boost to Hermes Allen's form a day after that exciting prospect rocketed to the top of the betting for the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle thanks to a bloodless win in Newbury's Challow Hurdle.
The victory, in the final Grade One race of 2022, maintained his 100 per cent record over hurdles. Under the hands of Harry Cobden, the novice hurdler made the running in the race, and he travelled strongly throughout the 2m4½f contest on testing ground at the Berkshire racecourse.
The Ditcheat runner was in full control of the race in the closing stages, and he was able to come home at a canter in what was an impressive outing.
As a result of that performance, he is now 4/1 for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival.
Nicholls indicated after the race that Hermes Allen is now likely to head straight to Cheltenham in March. He said: "I just kept saying we had to wait and now he’s maturing.
"Time never does these good horses any harm. I suspect we’ll go straight to Cheltenham now. There’s no real need to run him again, but the only option is the trial race in a month and then you have a nice gap until the Festival."
Weveallbeencaught, meanwhile, is 33/1 to win the Ballymore but Twiston-Davies revealed that he's more likely to run in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle, for which he is a 25/1 shot, in an attempt to avoid a rematch.
Speaking afterwards, Twiston-Davies declared: "He’ll be better over three miles and he’ll come back for the Ballymore or Albert Bartlett in March, most likely the Albert Bartlett as we don’t want to take on Hermes Allen – we’re not stupid! Hermes Allen looked lovely at Newbury, he’s pretty good."
While the main British action took place at Prestbury Park, Irish racegoers watched as 2021 Gold Cup winner Minella Indo battled past Stattler in Tramore's New Year's Day Chase.
The Henry de Bromhead-trained chaser was receiving 8lb from Willie Mullins' inmate Stattler, who looked to be getting on top on the run to the line before the winner battled back on the inside rail.
Minello Indo is now 20/1 from 40/1 to become the second horse to regain the Gold Cup - a feat only previously achieved by the legendary Kauto Star in 2009 - while Stattler is out to from 14/1.
"We’ll enjoy this and we’ll see," said De Bromhead when asked about future plans for his star chaser.
"We were thinking about the Irish Gold Cup but we might just go straight to Cheltenham. My gut would be to go straight there. We all know how much he loves it over there, he’s tough as old boots."