Sectional Spotlight: Champion Chase

Simon Rowlands gives his verdict on the feature contest on the second day of the Cheltenham Festival, the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

  • Monday 11 February
  • Blog
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Published 11th February

Your advance view of this year’s Betway-sponsored Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival is likely to tie in with your view of betting more generally. When you see a horse with outstanding claims on offer at a very short price, do you think “I am having some of that”, or “I want to find a way to get that beat”, or, even, “no-bet race”?

I am one of the last two by instinct, and definitely not the first-named, though every horse has its price and value can still exist at very short ones.

The horse in question is Altior, unbeaten in 17 runs over jumps, the last 12 of them chases, including in this race last year. He is, by common consent, one of the best chasers in the modern era. No rival has got within three lengths of him over larger obstacles and he last started odds against when running away with the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival in 2016.

Altior is a very short price for a repeat, and rightly so. Indeed, he could even go off shorter than his 4 to 1 on in the 2017 Arkle Chase. That was the second-shortest starting price at the Festival this century, behind Douvan at 9 to 2 on in the 2017 Champion Chase, a race that Douvan lost.

Stuff can happen in racing, as Douvan’s supporters know to their cost. For most of Altior’s rivals, that is the best they can hope for, but there is a bit more substance to the claims of one or two of them.

If you go back to the 2018 Festival, Altior ran the 1m 7f 199y of the Champion Chase in a time of 4m 05.3s compared to 4m 01.8s by FOOTPAD in the Arkle Chase (times confirmed using advanced video analysis).

The latter came 24 hours earlier, and there was rain in between, so an adjustment needs to be made for that and for the fact that Footpad carried 6 lb less. But the long and short of it is that, at that time and under those sorts of conditions, there was not much between the pair judged on analysis of overall times: I had Altior 4 lb superior and Timeform had him only 1 lb ahead.

Since then, Altior has continued on his magnificent way, though a tendency to jump markedly to his left somewhat marred his easy defeat of Fox Norton at Ascot last time. Footpad won easily at Punchestown soon after but has fallen early then been beaten narrowly by the veteran Simply Ned at Leopardstown since.

Some think Footpad was beaten simply on merit that day: I thought he shaped as if as good as ever until blowing up (he traded at 1.01 in play). Some also think Footpad needs the mud: those are the conditions he has generally encountered of late, but that Leopardstown run was on “good”, as was his second in the Irish Champion Hurdle on the same course in 2017.

For me, the reason why Footpad was so phenomenally good on the opening day of last year’s Cheltenham Festival had more than a bit to do with a crazily strong pace, which he sat comfortably off before storming away as his rivals wilted.

The leader in the Arkle was about 20 lengths ahead at halfway of the leader in the Champion Chase the following day, and that wide gap is not just down to the conditions by a long way.

Footpad won the Arkle by 14 lengths.

Look through the entries for this year’s Champion Chase and it is at least possible something similar is on the cards. Saint Calvados and Petit Mouchoir were the two tearaways in the 2018 Arkle and are entered, as are the front-runners Un De Sceaux, Great Field and Ozzie The Oscar.

This is unlikely to stop Altior, who tends to take off towards the end of his races, but it might just make him uncomfortable. The only time he has traded odds against over fences was in that Champion Chase, in which he touched 8.4 before storming away up the run-in.

There is a possibility that Footpad will be redirected to the Ryanair Chase over more than half a mile further the following day, but plenty of bookmakers are now going “non-runner, no bet” for the Festival, so you would get your money back if that happened. If he runs, an each-way bet nets you more or less the same profit if he finishes second or third as a win bet would on Altior were that one to win.

Other contenders for the Champion Chase, for second to Altior or possibly first outright, include: Min, who was second to Altior last year and who has won two less-exacting races this season out of two; Un De Sceaux, who was beaten four lengths by Altior at Sandown last time, and Politologue, fourth in the 2018 Champion Chase but in better form since until failing to stay three miles last time.

But they have all been demonstrably inferior to Altior on the racecourse. Footpad may be, but we do not know that for sure yet.

Any defeat for Altior would be a shock, but if there is to be a seismic one then perhaps it could come from rank outsider Hell’s Kitchen, not seen since winning a handicap in a smart time at Ascot just before Christmas. He is talented and the much stiffer task could see him raise his game.

But the improvement needed from Footpad is a good deal less, and the Footpad we saw in that Arkle Chase should make things more than a little interesting in any case.

Verdict: each way FOOTPAD (non-runner, no bet)

Sectional Spotlight: Champion Chase
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