An addition to the Festival when the fourth day was added in 2005, the Ryanair Chase has to be one of the most unloved races of the week with many feeling that it waters down the quality of the Festival, offering neither the quality or prestige of the two other championship chases of the week. Even after being upgraded to a Grade One it still fails to garner a great deal of respect or excitement.
I can see where the naysayers are coming from, in that it doesn’t offer the history of the Champion Chase or the Gold Cup and it can provide an excuse for some to skip the more challenging options, but I’m not quite as down on it as others. We have had some good winners of the race in its short history, with the quality of winner steadily improving as time moves on, and the fact it does offer an opportunity to those that fall somewhere in-between Champion Chase and Gold Cup type is a good thing in my view. I know that’s why some don’t like it, but it does provide a chance for us to see some quality horses that would otherwise skip the Festival or run in a race that clearly wasn’t suited to their talents. Yes, there is Aintree on a flatter track for those who can’t quite see out the Gold Cup trip, but the Ryanair can provide an opportunity for us to see horses run at both big meetings that we otherwise might not. It does also provide an opportunity for some who maybe aren’t quite ready for the Gold Cup and need a bit more time before moving on to the ultimate test in subsequent years.
Despite its short history and only be a Grade One since 2008, we’ve still had some good winners of the race. Vautour was a slightly controversial winner of the race last year given connections comments in the run-up to the Festival, but he was still a brilliant winner and will be a big miss as questions of whether he could have won a Gold Cup go answered. The argument that the Ryanair can be used as a stepping stone to the Gold Cup can be supported by past winners Imperial Commander and Cue Card, whilst the only dual winner Albertas Run did try a Gold Cup, without success. Last year’s winner will of course tragically miss out on defending his title but we will still have one former winner in Uxizandre, who provided AP McCoy with his final Festival success in 2015.
There are some clear trends in the race to look at with front runners (or those ridden close to the lead) having a great record in the race – I think it’s around eight out of nine of the last winners have been ridden in this way. The King George looks to be the best trial for the race with eight of nine previous winners having run in it since it became a Grade One, all but one had also previously won a Grade One and 18 out of 24 winners or runners-up had also won at Cheltenham before.
This year’s renewal looks pretty open with no real stand-out performers at this moment in time. There are question marks over whether this is the target for some or whether they’ll head for the races with the more prestige, as is a common theme where the Ryanair is concerned, while there are also questions around suitability and fitness with others.
The current favourite, and likely to go off as that on the day, Un De Sceaux was beaten as odds-on favourite in the Queen Mother Champion Chase last year, though finishing behind Sprinter Sacre in his fairy-tale win was no disgrace. Arguably the second best two-miler in training, it’s a shame he won’t be going back to challenge Douvan but as both are trained by Willie Mullins that clearly won’t happen. He has shown with previous form that he does have the ability to stay further so the step-up in trip for this makes some sense, but last year showed that although he has undoubted class he does lack a little bit of pace and is vulnerable to speedier types on better ground at the very top. He’s the highest rated in the race and has the class to win, but there are still some big question marks and at the current price I think I’d like something that doesn’t seem quite so vulnerable.
The winner of the 2015 renewal, Uxizandre like so many others won from the front, absolutely destroying a field that included subsequent Gold Cup winner Don Cossack. Off the course for the best part of two years since, he returned to Cheltenham recently to put in an eye-catching performance behind Un De Sceaux over a trip that would have been shorter than ideal and on ground that was softer than he wants. That performance puts him bang in the picture here, the only issue could be the dreaded bounce factor on his second run back from such a lengthy lay-off.
One I really liked for this who now looks unlikely to run is Sizing John. Having spent most of his career chasing the shadow of Douvan, the step-up in trip has really seen Sizing John shine, with it becoming apparent he is potentially a really talented horse, just not quite as good as Douvan over two miles. However, his victory in the Irish Gold Cup has led to connections now targeting the Gold Cup, and who could blame them. If for whatever reason he was diverted back here, he’d be a real contender.
The only likely runner in the field who can confirm the King George trend, Josses Hill is a frustrating sort who is the model of inconsistency, putting in some really impressive runs but then inevitably following up with a shocker. The two wins he put together at the start of the season would give him a great chance here but on his King George performance he’d have no chance. He has some decent Festival form, having placed in both a Supreme and an Arkle, and has the right style of racing to win, however, he was well beaten last year and can we really support one so unreliable?
One who isn’t certain to run here, with connections possibly eyeing the Gold Cup, Zabana was well supported in the JLT last year but got no further than the starting line. He followed that up with a strong victory at Punchestown to show that support was not unwarranted. Seemingly campaigned with the Gold Cup in mind this year, his form hasn’t really supported that notion and the Ryanair looks a more realistic target. With his best form on good over a similar trip and previous Cheltenham form, he looks ideal for this.
Winner of the JLT last year over course and distance, Black Hercules looked like one to follow for the year but has been a shadow of expectation. In fairness he has run over trips and conditions that might not be ideal, but he has shown very little to support any notion of winning this. If he could return anywhere close to the JLT winning form he’d have a definite chance, so could represent some value, but you would be taking a chance on that.
The sponsors of the race have a few lively contenders in the mix this year via the Giggingstown operation, the first of which is Sub Lieutenant. A winner twice at the start of the season on good ground his form tailed off a bit on softer ground, but on both occasions he was beaten by good horses (Djakadam and Sizing John) and will definitely appreciate the return to better ground. A slight worry would be a lack of Cheltenham experience but he is almost certain to run here and could represent some value. Empire of Dirt, a winner of a handicap at the Festival in 2016, is one of the most improved horses in training, subsequently winning another good handicap and then placing second in the Irish Gold Cup. Connections have pointed to this race and he could be a real contender, but the value now looks to have disappeared. Placed in the Ryanair last year and the Gold Cup the previous year, Road to Riches has some of the most impressive Cheltenham form on offer, but his form has taken a nosedive in the past 12 months and he’d need to have a revival to figure here. If he could recapture some of his old spark some of the bigger prices on offer could be generous, but it looks a very big if at this point.
One of the most fascinating contenders is Vroum Vroum Mag, the mare dubbed as ‘the supersub’ by Willie Mullins. As much as I’d love to see her run here and see how good she could be over fences, I just can’t see it happening and they’ll likely head for the Mares’ Hurdle.
Taquin Du Seil is a course winner having captured the JLT in 2014. He has subsequently been beaten in two renewals of this and, although bagging a decent handicap at the beginning of this season, it seems unlikely there will be a change in fortune this year.
A number of horses featuring in the betting have other options open to them, so it is difficult to gauge how much to assess them. The first of these is Gods Own, who I feel is more likely to head for the Champion Chase. If he was to head here he could be a dark horse, having been successful over the two and a half miles and enjoying spring ground, but he might just lack the stamina for the trip at Cheltenham. Traffic Fluide has the same entries as Gods Own and has been highlighted as a horse with potential in the past, but he has failed to beat a single horse in his past two starts and cannot be supported on all known form as far as I am concerned.
Anything else, I feel is either unlikely to run here or isn’t worth mentioning. If anything else was to win I’d eat my proverbial hat.
The Ryanair Chase has an incredibly open look to it at this point in time with no real stand out contenders, credible cases for and against can be made for most. Yes, Un De Sceaux is favourite and has that bit of class that others maybe don’t, but I just feel he is too vulnerable here to represent any kind of value – at current and likely starting prices. So for that reason, I’ll be taking him on.
Sizing John was the one I really liked, but with confirmation he’ll head for the Gold Cup I’ll have to look elsewhere. There are lots of question marks around Zabana and the fact that connections spoke of targeting the Gold Cup wouldn’t usually fill me with confidence, but I think this race is tailor made for him and really like the form of his Punchestown win last year. Now that it looks like the Gold Cup is not suited to his abilities, hopefully connections can focus on readying him for victory in this.
Prior to his performance in the Irish Gold Cup, Empire Of Dirt was good value for Michael O’Leary to bag the race he sponsors for the first time, but with that value now gone I’ll get behind another of his contenders, Sub Lieutenant. He’ll definitely need to improve but his profile and style do appeal, so I’ll take an each way chance that he can at least find enough improvement to place.
I also wouldn’t put anyone off backing Uxizandre but the threat of the bounce factor just hangs a bit too heavily here for me to get behind him.
Zabana – @ 16/1 (NRNB, William Hill)
Sub Lieutenant – @ 14/1 (Numerous)