The BHA’s Chase Handicappers preview the Championship races over fences at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
So far this season, the best performances at 3m+ have come from Cue Card (176) and Vautour (176), however the big question is, can those two replicate that level when faced with the unique demands of the course at Cheltenham, writes Phil Smith.
Don Cossack has performed to 170 this season, although he still retains his rating of 175 from 2014/15. However he does appear to be a more certain stayer than Vautour.
Smad Place (169) has been a revelation since becoming a front-runner but there have been few all the way winners of the Gold Cup for all Coneygree triumphed from the front last year.
Djakadam (168) looked to have bags of potential last season but so far events have conspired to prevent him from delivering this year. Don Poli (166) does nothing but stay and he will be keeping on when some of the classier animals have cried enough.
The same came be said for Carlingford Lough (164), who needs to show he is as effective away from Leopardstown. Finally there is Road To Riches (165), who disappointed last time but is a certain stayer from last year’s race.
Overall lots to anticipate, but nothing as yet has shown itself to be better than last year’s winner, Coneygree.
BETWAY QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE
This year’s Champion Chase has the distinction of having three previous winners set to do battle, but it’s last season’s Champion 2m novice who heads the market, writes Graeme Smith.
Un de Sceaux has crashed out of two of his seven starts over fences so far, but he’s been an impressive winner of the other five and was 8lb clear in the 2m Novice division last season when an outstanding winner of the Arkle – his 168 figure is the second highest performance in that race in well over a decade (Sprinter Sacre ran to 169).
Any doubts about how he’d fare in open company were laid to rest when he stretched five lengths clear of Sire de Grugy in Ascot’s Clarence House in January, and that 172 performance is the best we’ve seen at the trip this season by my reckoning.
I don’t feel Sire de Grugy quite ran to his season-best that day, appearing to tire more than might have been expected after the last. He’d run to 169 when beating Special Tiara (168) in the Tingle Creek, and actually got to 172 himself when Champion in 2014.
That, of course, pales into insignificance when compared to Sprinter Sacre’s peak – his 188 from 2013 marks him down as the second best NH horse this century after Kauto Star.
His problems have been well documented, but his followers will be clinging not only to this headline figure but also the fact he’s unbeaten in two starts this time around.
An imperious performance on his return at Cheltenham has been tempered slightly by how the beaten horses have fared subsequently and that now rates at 170, which is also the figure he achieved when having to dig deep to overhaul Sire de Grugy at Kempton.
Last year’s winner Dodging Bullets may well have taken advantage of a division that lacked a superstar, and having ended the season on 171 he’s now down to 168. He’ll have to come on plenty from the 153 he ran to in defeat on his return, but the angle is there.
If Vautour turns up he may well start favourite – he’d be the pick on ratings at 176 – but his sights seem to be set elsewhere. Felix Yonger could well be the Willie Mullins second string. He’s won six of his last seven starts but would surely need to do more than his current figure of 162.
Decisions on where some of the top chasers run at the Festival are often fluid, and particularly so when it comes to the Ryanair, writes Mark Olley.
The top Irish stables in particular have several options and it’s very hard to pinpoint the likely field for the 2m5f highlight at this stage.
Uxizandre (169) won the race in 2015 and the average rating of the winner over the past five seasons is 168.
The best 2m4f performance of the season so far was Silviniaco Conti’s (169) demolition of Dynaste in the Grade 1 Ascot Chase late last month.
Djakadam and Don Cossack have recorded performances of 168 (their handicap ratings are higher), but they are two of the front three in the Gold Cup betting and Don Cossack is the only one of the three mentioned to hold a Ryanair entry.
Al Ferof has an official rating of 165. He was a couple of lengths in front of Ptit Zig (162) when the latter fell at the last in the Grade 2 Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon in December and was far from disgraced over 3m in the King George on his sole subsequent run.
Dan Skelton’s gelding missed Cheltenham last year and was fifth in the Ryanair back in 2014 when he was struck-into during the race.
Road To Riches has also recorded a performance of 165 over 2m4f this season (has an official rating of 168), dominating a Grade 2 at Clonmel in November.
Third in last season’s Gold Cup, he’s another whose choice of engagement is far from certain, but he’d likely be a major contender if choosing the Ryanair option.
Smashing (159), Vroum Vroum Mag (154, but gets a 7lb mares’ allowance) and Valseur Lido (164) have all shown a level of form to be involved if this is their chosen race, particularly as I don’t think any of them have yet reached their peak.
As in the Champion Chase, the race will take a very different complexion if the 176-rated Vautour turns up, but recent quotes from his connections suggest he could be ‘going for Gold’.
JLT GOLDEN MILLER CHASE
I am really looking forward to the JLT Golden Miller Novice Chase as there are, as usual, several exciting novices around, writes Mark Olley.
It’s hard to see any of them matching Vautour’s exceptional performance of 171 from last year, but the five year average winning rating of 162 looks achievable.
Of the entries, No More Heroes has achieved most so far. We have a figure of 159 for his two small-field Leopardstown wins, but he is much more likely to stick to 3m and head for the RSA.
More of That and Otago Trail just have the pick of the 2m4f form. It is hard to pin down a figure for More of That’s comfortable thirteen length defeat of Sametegal at Cheltenham in December.
I have pencilled in a rating of 154, but that could be higher on both More of That’s World Hurdle success and Sametegal’s Newbury effort from last weekend.
We also have Otago Trail rated 154 for his wide margin handicap win at Chepstow in early January. He never travelled when disappointing at Haydock later that month but clearly has serious ability. The fact he’s unproven on decent ground would be a concern, though.
Bristol de Mai has really caught the eye in three starts since stepped up to 2m4f, culminating in an impressive win in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Chase at Sandown last month.
His rating of 153 has him there with the best Novices and I would be amazed if there isn’t plenty more to come from Nigel Twiston-Davies’ likeable gelding.
Just behind we have Three Musketeers, Shaneshill, Vaniteux, Black Hercules (all 152) and Outlander (151) and there looks great strength in depth to this race.
RACING POST ARKLE CHALLENGE TROPHY
Douvan got the party started for Team Mullins last year when justifying hot favouritism in the Supreme and he’s going to be odds on this time around when returning for the Arkle, writes Graeme Smith.
It’s all looked so easy for him in three unbeaten starts over fences, and while conditions at Cheltenham are likely to put more pressure on his jumping the truth is that he’s looked polished so far.
His form to date has been discussed with the Irish handicapper and he’ll be credited with a rating of 161 going into the race.
The best of the British Novices at this stage is Ar Mad at 155, but he’s out for the season and that leaves the Gordon Elliott-trained The Game Changer as Douvan’s nearest rival on my figures alone.
He’s also 155 and there’s a fair dollop of subjectivity in that as it’s all come fairly easy to him so far. Good ground would make for a home game for him, but his last two wins have come at 2m2f and 2m4f, and it’s not easy to know how much more he’ll find under pressure.
Clear second favourite behind Douvan in the market is Vaniteux. He’s on 152 and has found only Ar Mad too good in his three starts over fences (he failed by a neck in receipt of 2lb), and that result might have been different had he met the last on a better stride.
Vaniteux has Festival form, having been third to Vautour in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and he also recorded his best performance at Prestbury Park when second in the Greatwood Hurdle later in 2014.
Henry de Bromhead’s Sizing John was third to Douvan in last year’s Supreme and looks set to renew rivalry. He’d impressed when winning his first two starts over fences and rates at 150, but will have to jump better than he did against his old rival last time.
Similar comments apply to L’Ami Serge’s jumping. Three lengths further back from Sizing John in last year’s Supreme, he looked good in a couple of ordinary novices when starting out over fences (147) but put in a very shoddy round when turned over at 5/1-on in the Kingmaker at Warwick.
Others worthy of a mention include Shaneshill, who was second in Douvan’s Supreme and rates at 152 on the form he showed prior to flopping behind Vaniteux at Doncaster, though he has several other options.
Arzal is 151, and while he’s seen the back end of Vaniteux twice he goes enthusiastically and is getting closer. The industrious Garde La Victoire has room to improve on his figures of 151 if able to jump more fluently.
And Alisier D’Irlande (148), Ttebbob (150) and Pain Au Chocolat (145) have given quite a sight at various stages when set alight in front.