by Gary Nutting
13:30 Cheltenham Thu 15 March
Jewson Novices' Chase (Registered As The Golden Miller Novices' Chase) (Grade 2) (Class 1) (5YO plus)
Winner £51,255 - 10 ran
IT'S not easy nailing down Willie Mullins' running plans this far ahead of the Festival as he likes to keep his options open for as long as possible but surely he can't run SIR DES CHAMPS in any other race than the Jewson Novices' Chase?
Rated 143 over hurdles after winning the Martin Pipe conditionals race on his handicap debut at last year's meeting, the six-year-old has made a smooth transition to fences, chalking up a hat-trick between early December and late January, the last two coming in Grade 2 company.
Unbeaten now in five starts since joining Mullins from France, the gelding was particularly impressive at Leopardstown last time, travelling and jumping with great efficiency and looking set for a comfortable success until hitting the last after he'd been squeezed for room and forced to switch round horses to make his challenge.
Yet despite losing a fair bit of momentum with that mistake, Sir Des Champs still produced a striking turn of foot to get up and score a shade cosily under a confident ride from Gigginstown Stud's retained jockey Davy Russell.
The French-bred's last four wins have come at or around 2m5f (a trip he seems especially well equipped for) and with his high rating ruling him out of the novice handicap equivalent, the Jewson looks the obvious target.
Mullins also has him entered in the RSA Chase but even if the trainer thought the step up to three miles would suit him, owner Michael O'Leary is unlikely to be clamouring for his participation given that he already has two strong candidates for the stayers' event in Last Instalment and First Lieutenant.
With a Festival win already to his name and the promise of even better to come over fences, he looks one of the bets of the meeting at 7-1 in what is likely to be one of the weaker 'championship' events.
At this stage it's impossible to know how good Sir Des Champs might be as he keeps winning with something up his sleeve, but at Leopardstown he beat a very useful yardstick in Hidden Cyclone (dual Grade 2 winner and Grade 1 placed over hurdles, and convincing winner of his only previous start over fences) so I doubt class will be an issue.
With a Festival win already to his name and the promise of even better to come over fences (best suited by being held up off a decent pace, so small-field chases in Ireland not ideal), he looks one of the bets of the meeting at 7-1 in what is likely to be one of the weaker 'championship' events.
This is illustrated by the fact that at least four of the next six in the betting are unlikely to run. Peddlers Cross and Al Ferof are Arkle-bound, Last Instalment is heading for the RSA and Paul Nicholls has suggested that Silviniaco Conti may well miss Cheltenham altogether.
That leaves the Nicholls-trained Cristal Bonus as effectively the main market rival to the selection, but he's got a fair bit to prove after just the single outing over fences resulting in an odds-on victory in a Class 4 event in heavy ground at Chepstow.
On hurdles ratings you would have to respect him as he's got an official mark of 152, but then again he's quite difficult to assess in that his two runs in that sphere away from France (where he was second in a Grade 1) produced unplaced efforts behind Menorah and Grands Crus over very different trips.
Champion Court and Solix, who fought out a thrilling finish to the 'Dipper' on New Year's Day, bring some pretty reliable course form to the table, especially as they also ran well over hurdles at the Festival last year.
A 3lb pull for Solix should make it even closer this time around, although it's fair to say Champion Court would have scored more decisively had he not tended to jump to the right.
A bold-jumping frontrunner over this trip, Champion Court reminds me a bit of last year's Jewson selection Wishfull Thinking. But he was eventually run down by a hold-up horse with a turn of foot (Noble Prince), which brings us neatly back to Sir Des Champs.
Jewson Novices' Chase (Thursday 15 March)
5pts win SIR DES CHAMPS
(7-1 Ladbrokes, William Hill)