In my review of The Arkle I said that it was among the most exciting races of the week due to the mix of speed and jumping over two miles, paired with the risk of a novicey mistake. Well, if that race is among the best, than so is The Queen Mother Champion Chase, which serves up the very best of two-mile chasers going at it in full flight; a stunning exhibition of pace, precision and polished jumping.
Over the years we’ve had some magnificent winners of this race with some of the absolute greats of the jumps game winning. The horse that stands out in my memory is Moscow Flyer, a two-time champion he was the first to regain the title and could have had a treble if not for unseating when odds on and travelling well during his first defence of the title. What stands out about Moscow Flyer, apart from the style of his wins, is the fact that he was racing (and dominating) during one of the best eras for two mile chasers; coming up against names like Azertyuiop, himself a winner in 2004, and Well Chief.
As well as the great Moscow Flyer, the rollcall of champion chasers also include Master Minded; a dual winner and the youngest ever winner when destroying the field as a five-year-old, One Man; the great grey who also bagged two King George’s, the dual champion Viking Flagship and, going right back, Flyingbolt.
The latest addition to the Champion Chase hall of fame will go down as one of the most emotional winners of the race, or any Festival Race for that matter, after landing a fairy tale renewal in 2016. Sprinter Sacre absolutely dominated the division for period of around two years and seemed set to dominate for longer until stopped in his prime by a heart condition. Against the odds, after missing the chance to defend his title in 2014 and then putting in a disappointing effort in 2015, he came back to beat the odds-on Un De Sceaux and win in dominant fashion. Sprinter Sacre looked to be back to his best and we looked forward to seeing him defend his title against some of the young guns, however, injury appeared at the start of the season and, unsurprisingly given his previous problems, he was retired. After coming back to greatness and the catalogue of victories he secured through his career, he owed connections nothing and we should just be grateful to have seen him. The only question that possibly remains is, how many Champion Chases could he have won without an interrupted career?
There won’t be such a fairy tale this year and it looks unlikely we’ll be seeing one of the classics, but there is a chance we might get to witness one of the absolute greats in action.
The Champion Chase lacks a depth in quality compared to some previous years, looking a little uncompetitive and we could see one of the smallest fields we’ve ever seen, but what we lack in depth of quality is potentially made up for by one horse, Douvan.
Douvan is the superstar in the field; a dual Festival winner who has been absolutely brilliant so far, winning an Arkle last year and seemingly dominating every field he comes up against. It’s debatable whether he’s really been tested yet or been forced out of a canter, so it’s frightening to think we’ve yet to see the full potential. One could debate the fact that he’s yet to be tested or bemoan the fact that he seems to have scared everything else off, making the Champion Chase field look uncompetitive, but that isn’t his fault, so maybe we should just appreciate his magnificence. Some say he should go for The Gold Cup, but why should he? The Champion Chase is a major title in its own right and if he best at two miles, why shouldn’t he stick to it?
It’s difficult to see anything else winning. Douvan should and probably will win with ease, and the odds available reflect that. Realistically, unless you have thousands to play with this race is not worth betting on, with the exception of adding it to multiples for a little price boost. We should just sit back and appreciate the race for what it is, but with a short price favourite is there potential to bag a bit of each way value?
The Rest of the Field
Outside of the obvious of Douvan, the remaining contenders are headed by Fox Norton. Third behind Douvan in The Arkle and at Aintree last year, without ever getting nearer than ten lengths, Fox Norton has since landed a three-timer at Cheltenham; rounding off last season with victory and starting this season with strong wins in a handicap and The Schloer Chase. In that time there has also been a big money purchase, a change of stable to Colin Tizzard and he has become one of the rising stars of the two mile division. However, despite the obvious improvement we have to look at the fact that he has failed to get anywhere near Douvan in previous meetings and has been off track since November; if only looking for each way value, the best price of 8/1 doesn’t look great. He may very well be best of the rest, but I’d rather look elsewhere for the chance of something running into the places at a bigger price.
Beaten when odds-on favourite in last year’s renewal, the conditions of the race maybe just don’t suit Un De Sceaux as he looks to get done for a little bit of speed on good ground at the business end of racing. However, all of his best form is at two miles and he is clearly the second best two miler in the business and should be given his chance to take on Douvan, even if just to make a race of it. The problem is, we all know that isn’t how the Mullins stable works as he likes keeping his best apart and it looks odds-on that Un De Sceaux will take his chance in The Ryanair, which seems a real shame.
Gods Own was second in Un De Sceaux’s Arkle, finished fourth in this last year and closed last season with victory in two Grade One’s, beating the ill-fated Vautor over two miles at Punchestown, in the process showing he does have the class to compete at the top. His form so far this season has been a little disappointing but it’s worth keep in mind he seems to be a spring horse who improves markedly when the weather turns. There has been rumours that The Ryanair could be the aim and the entry in that race doesn’t rule that out, but I’m not sure he’d see out the extended trip and think the two miles is his optimum. With that in mind, he could be one who is potentially overpriced.
A popular victor in 2014 and triumphing for the less glamourous yards in the process, Sire De Grugy has failed to recapture those heights since and is not getting any younger at 11. However, despite previously seeming to be in decline he has shown bits and pieces of form this year. If others try to go with Douvan, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sire De Grugy stay on up the hill past tired horses for a place as he has the experience to handle the occasion and run a race.
Another horse with plenty of experience is Special Tiara, who seems to have been around for years, falling just short of top class in the division. He’s probably better away from Cheltenham but is entitled to run and will like the better ground we’re likely to encounter. He won’t be good enough to trouble Douvan in any way, but again might just have the experience to handle the race and run into a place if ridden to do so.
Gordon Elliot is the closest competitor to Willie Mulllins in Ireland and has two entries here, neither of whom are likely to really challenge the favourite. The Game Changer has run in behind Douvan on a number of occasions and might be one for a handicap if heading to Cheltenham, whilst Tell Us More might just lack something to perform at the highest level. He was singled out as a horse with potential when with Willie Mullins a couple of years ago but his form just hasn’t matched expectations and, although Pricewise picked him as his ante-post selection, I think there are better options available.
A faller when co-favourite for the JLT last year, Garde La Victoire has clearly had issues with jumping and consistency. However, I can’t ignore that he is obviously well thought of and went off as favourite last year. If he can put in a clear round of jumping, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him nick a place, whilst the fact that this is his only entry suggests this is the target.
There are others with entries who feature in the betting, all of which I expect to head elsewhere. Altior surely runs in The Arkle, Sizing John looks to have improved for the step-up in trip, Uxizandre will try to regain his Ryanair title, whilst trainer comments and previous runs suggest Traffic Fluide, Black Hercules, Dodging Bullets and Vaniteux also head to the Ryanair.
On all form and logic, Douvan wins.
Looking at the remainder of the field for the purpose of betting without or aiming for a place, there is a bit of each way value available even if you are hoping for rather than expecting a performance. Fox Norton potentially looks best of the rest based on recent form and the prospect of further improvement, but the uncertainty over fitness and best price of 8/1 available make him an unappealing prospect, as we’re looking for a bigger return. Sire De Grugy has the experience to stay on up the hill so anything around the 33/1 mark could be worth a chance.
However, the two I’m going to follow for each way purposes are Gods Own and Garde La Victoire. Gods Own has grade one form, improves massively in springtime and has the ability to stay that little bit further, which could be essential if they tear off at a frantic pace, so the 20/1 widely available looks pretty good value to me when we’re looking for a horse to place. Garde La Victoire perhaps needs a little more faith and is more of a hopeful than expectant bet, but I just feel that the 33/1 available could represent some value. The fact that he was so well backed for the JLT last year and that connections have only entered him here when there were other opportunities means I’m prepared to take a chance and hope he can run into a place.
Gods Own – 1pt e/w @ 20/1 (Bet365, ¼ odds first 3 & NRNB)
Garde La Victoire – 1pt e/w @ 33/1 (Bet365, ¼ odds first 3 & NRNB)