Last week, we looked at the Champion Hurdle from a ratings perspective. This time, we’ll tackle the Champion Chase, a quality-looking contest that has race of the meeting potential. The Wednesday highlight doesn’t have the competitive depth as the aforementioned top hurdling prize of the week, but with the likes of Altior, Chacun Pour Soi and Defi Du Seuil in – along with numerous other quality horses – we will hopefully witness a race for the ages.
Ratings don’t take everyone’s fancy, but for me, they are an enjoyable process with the potential to give you an edge. Fundamentally, ratings are a subjective view on ability, and one of the first variables I look to when sitting down to assess a race. They can sometimes be misleading however, my own included, as they often represent a horse’s ability under optimum conditions.
While I find them helpful, they are just another variable in a game that has endless, and ratings alone are certainly not the key to success. Hopefully people find them of use, like I have, for all the BHA’s and Timeform’s are much more respected and in general paint a perfectly good picture of races.
ALTIOR STILL TOP DOG AS YOUNG PRETENDERS LOOM LARGE
Altior’s quest to win a third Queen Mother Champion Chase in-a-row, and emulate the great Badsworth Boy, got off to a shaky start this season, when put in his place by Cyrname at Ascot back in November.
From a ratings perspective however, for me, it was Altior’s best run in two seasons, including the current campaign. He was beaten by a top-class horse at a track that favoured the winner significantly more, but to run to 168+ on seasonal debut when tackling a new trip, it was a good start to the season, for all he couldn’t extend his unbeaten sequence to 20.
That 168 figure is still way off his career best effort in the 2018 Champion Chase, when a 7-length drubbing of Min saw him hit a monstrous 177. Altior hasn’t achieved those heights since, and 'that' Altior is likely gone, but a combination of factors have played their part; decline, through aging and simply being a vastly superior horse – as many of his SPs suggest – my main two factors at play.
Ratings are a lot about opportunity and Altior simply hasn’t met many horses of comparable ability for large parts of his career, that of course, until he faced Cyrname. Sometimes in this sport, in terms of ratings, to be a great, you need to beat a great. Altior has already solidified himself as a National Hunt legend, but that legend will grow again if he can add another Champion Chase to his CV.
Even as a now ten-year-old, can Altior do it? Of course he can, as his odds of 2/1 suggest. The 2018 Champion Chaser would be odds-on for this season’s renewal, but even an aging Altior will be tough for the younger guns of Chacun Pour Soi and Defi Du Seuil to turn over. Quite simply, they have yet to face a horse of Altior’s calibre yet.
As detailed in a previous column, in some ways, the very test that the Champion Chase brings, may be Altior’s biggest concern. There can be no doubt that he stayed the trip when beaten by Cyrname at Ascot, and he has always looked like a horse who could excel over intermediate distances, so whether 2m on the Old Course shows Altior off at his very best at this stage of his career, I’m not sure.
On a personal level, I wanted to see Nicky Henderson’s stable star run in the Ryanair this season. Because one, I think the trip would suit him better and two, the New Course most certainly would have showed him off more. It’s a shame we never got to witness Altior on the New Course in his pomp, but I can understand the lure of winning a third Champion Chase was just too powerful.
The main equine dangers are clearly Chacun Pour Soi and Defi Du Seuil, the former 11/4 for the Champion Chase, the latter 9/4. This pair of course clashed at the Punchestown Festival last season, where the Willie Mullins-trained Chacun Pour Soi took the measure of Grade 1 JLT Novices’ Chase winner Defi Du Seuil, by a convincing four lengths.
That level of authority may just flatter Chacun Pour Soi a touch, given the injury-prone eight-year-old headed into the race a much fresher horse than the runner-up, who had four more runs before his Irish raid. Indeed, as it stands, I only have a pound between them; Chacun Pour Soi (165p) and Defi Du Seuil (164).
Chacun Pour Soi started his season late, having his first run at Leopardstown over the Festive period. There, despite being wide for large parts and needing the run, the son of Policy Maker ran well, although turned over, by a race-fit and inform A Plus Tard, but he took a big step forward at the Dublin Racing Festival when handing Min, a ready 3¾ lengths defeat.
This performance was his graduation proper to open company, the one that showed us he deserves to have a crack at the aging king, Altior. Min is maybe not quite at his best over circa two miles on decent ground, but the manor in which he was dispatched by his stablemate was taking.
Chacun Pour Soi jumps and travels like he’ll match Altior for 90% of the Queen Mother; the only potential negative I could see heading to Cheltenham, is having a tough prep race, which is something Altior and Defi Du Seuil fans need not be worried about.
Defi Du Seuil warmed up for the Champion Chase at Ascot, in the Clarence House Chase, a race we covered at the time. There maybe isn’t a whole pile more to add, but I can’t help but again point out, this season, while Philip Hobbs’s inmate has adapted well to open company, in his three victories he has beaten Politologue, when in receipt of 3lb, and an aging Un De Sceaux, twice, who is now 12.
When on song, Politologue is a top-class horse, but Harry Cobden didn’t go quick enough on the grey when he was beaten by Defi Du Seuil in the Shloer Chase, and while Un De Sceaux will go down as one of the great horses of his era, his greatness is embodied not by his ability, but more through his zest for life and consistency at such a high level spanning many seasons.
For me, the JP McManus horse's form just lacks that little bit of star quality, compared to Altior and Chacun Pour Soi, but to his credit he remains unbeaten this season and the fact he goes to Cheltenham off a perfect prep should not be underestimated.
It would come as a considerable shock should one of the aforementioned trio – the race market leaders – not win this year’s Champion Chase, but despite the likes of A Plus Tard (Ryanair), Cilaos Emery (Champion Hurdle) and Min (Ryanair) running elsewhere, there are others worth a mention.
Top of the list, at least for me, is Sceau Royal (161) whose profile I like heading into the Champion Chase this season. With each run, the Simon Munir & Isaac Souede-owned gelding has progressed during the campaign and he was a good third in last year’s Champion Chase behind Altior, having traded odds-on in running, despite not getting a good lead and cover for large parts of the race.
The son of Doctor Dino is a good traveller, a slick jumper and as an eight-year-old there still must be a chance of improvement. Furthermore, Alan King’s horses appear to be in good order at the moment. If that continues, granted spring ground, it would not be a big shock to see him hit the frame at 33/1.
At the current odds, I would much rather back him each-way to hit the frame, than support any of the market leaders in a win-only bet. It looks a better value option to me.
Despite coming here on the back of a disappointing effort in the Tingle Creek behind Defi Du Seuil and Un De Sceaux, Politologue (163), who was runner-up in the 2019 Champion Chase behind Altior, is deserving of a positive mention.
The grey started the campaign with a lovely run behind Defi Du Seuil but at Sandown, on his next start, he disappointed and was said to have bled. He is obviously in good hands with Paul Nicholls and goes well fresh and is another who is capable of mixing it with the best if on song.
Good, old Un De Sceaux (164) may well run here, but would need very soft or even heavy ground to shake up the market leaders, should he run. He clearly still operates in the mid-160s as a 12-year-old, which is incredible, and on ratings alone, is well entitled to have a go.
His presence will make things easier for the market leaders, making the race likely to be less tactical. A pace burn-up up front enhances the chances of Sceau Royal picking up the pieces late, as I doubt Altior, Chacun Pour Soi an Defi Du Seuil will give each other an inch.