LEADING SECTIONAL RATINGS (as of 17/02/2020)
The Ryanair Chase is the newcomer in terms of championship events at the Cheltenham Festival, having replaced in 2005 the Cathcart Chase, a race for first-season and second-season novices which was about the easiest of the three days (back then) to crack but still often impossible from personal experience.
There have been only two winners at double-figured prices in 15 years, with average winning SPs at just over 4/1, so the impression of its being eminently solvable remains.
At this stage, less than a month out, a few that might have been major contenders seem likely to run in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, or miss the meeting entirely. The above sectional ratings reflect that.
Marginal favourite at the time of writing is A PLUS TARD, who I have on 162. That may seem stingy about a horse who beat Chacun Pour Soi (now 177, likely to run in the Champion Chase and hopefully win it) at Leopardstown over Christmas, but the elephant in the room of that piece of form is that 150-rated Ordinary World was quite close in third.
Ordinary World has won only once since 2016 and was pulled up at long odds behind a much-improved Chacun Pour Soi next time. A Plus Tard is very smart, possibly improving, and effective under the likely Ryanair Chase conditions, but that win was not as good as it might have appeared and he does not deserve to be quite so short.
BRISTOL DE MAI is more versatile than he has often been credited for – at least in terms of venue – but last ran at around this trip back in 2016 and is not a certain participant.
UN DE SCEAUX’s previous attempts in this race yielded a win as a 9-y-o in 2017, a second the following year, and a fifth 12 months ago, from which it might be concluded that age has been catching up with him. His appearances have become more sporadic as time has gone by: some of them have countered that easy narrative, while others – such as his dull effort at Ascot last time – have not.
If you could script Un De Sceaux’s ideal circumstances, the ground would be barely raceable and the trip might be two miles. The latter is not happening here.
If you could script MIN’s ideal conditions, it might be ground that is not especially soft, and two and a half miles or an extended two. That seems at least possible here.
Given such, he has a fine record, including a 20-length win in the Melling Chase at Aintree in April from 165-rated POLITOLOGUE and the running-on three and three quarter lengths second to Chacun Pour Soi in a fast-time Dublin Chase at Leopardstown on his latest appearance, alluded to above.
There have been some comments to the effect that Min may not be at his best at Cheltenham. That is possible, I suppose, but a second to Altior in a Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and a Champion Chase in which that gelding was at the absolute peak of his powers can certainly be interpreted otherwise, while Ruby Walsh may well wish to forget his ride on the horse in the most recent Champion Chase.
If the FRODON of last winter (when rated 172) turns up then he will be a tough horse to beat, but he did not have to be at his very best to account for ASO (157) by a length and a quarter in this 12 months ago, nor in two defeats and one win (beat 155-rated Keeper Hill narrowly at Kempton) since.
RIDERS ONTHE STORM (162) won the Betfair Ascot Chase on Saturday – a race that seemed to put the final nail in the coffin of Cyrname’s participation at Cheltenham, never mind the Ryanair Chase – but only after being left clear at the last by the fall of 153-rated Traffic Fluide. Splits show that the mid-race pace was too fast, so Riders Onthe Storm deserves extra credit, but this is tougher still and he may not benefit from a slog.
Real Steel (162) is another whose Cheltenham prospects went for a burton at the weekend, when he ran abjectly at Gowran Park.
CILAOS EMERY (160) was a winner on the same card, but over hurdles not fences, and it is beginning to look as if he will run in the Champion Hurdle (same rating) and not in this or the Champion Chase. The softer the ground, probably the better for him (it was not far off unraceable at Gowran), whichever race it proves to be.
SAINT CALVADOS (160) is not the tearaway he once was, or was asked to be, but his second in a handicap at this course and distance on New Year’s Day, while up there with his best, was the mark of a horse who will do well to run into a place if the main contenders turn up and complete.
The picture for the Ryanair Chase is a little clearer than it was a week or two ago, thankfully, and Min is the standard-setter. He has good recent form, time, and sectionals, to his name, is likely to be suited by conditions, and must be difficult to beat if at his best.
VERDICT: MIN to win (non runner, no bet)