Published 18th January
We need to talk about the elephant in the room where the Ryanair Chase – one of the highlights of Thursday at the Cheltenham Festival in March – is concerned. Far and away the best proven two-and-a-half mile chaser is not even entered in the race and seems almost certain to miss it.
Cyrname put up an elephant-sized performance – African, not Indian, at that – when smashing the track record in the Betfair Ascot Chase on Saturday despite the ground being on the soft side of good. In the process, he thrashed the high-class Waiting Patiently by 17 lengths with other good horses even further behind. The timefigure almost goes off the scale.
Connections think that Cyrname needs to go right-handed, and all of his wins have come that way. Cheltenham’s loss may be Punchestown’s gain.
The other reason why we need to talk about Cyrname is that he was so outrageously good that the horses he trounced remain legitimate contenders for the Ryanair Chase in his presumed absence. There will be some talented runners against them, but not as talented as the beast we saw at the weekend.
Waiting Patiently remains in the frame for the Ryanair and might have been top of my list were it not for the fact that he failed to impress with his finishing effort. He got almost to Cyrname’s quarters early in the Ascot home straight, but then, when the winner turned on the after-burners, put his head to one side and tended to wander.
This was only Waiting Patiently’s second appearance since winning this race 12 months earlier, and on the other he unseated early through no fault of his own. If you want to be more forgiving than me, then I can understand it.
However, there was a horse on Waiting Patiently’s tail at the finish who shaped better with the Ryanair Chase in mind, in my opinion, and that was FOX NORTON.
The Queen Mother Champion Chase runner-up in 2017 was not seen after later in that year until coming a seven-length second to Altior in the Clarence House Chase on this course in January. That might not have amounted to a great deal, though the timefigure was reasonably encouraging. But this was more substantial again.
Fox Norton moved up promisingly into second on the home turn, got outpaced, then was coming again at the line. He comfortably had the measure of Politologue, Charbel and Aso, all of them capable of running in the low-to-mid 160s and coming off better preparations than he had. There is every chance that Fox Norton will improve again for this.
Fox Norton wins the 2017 Champion Chase at the Punchestown Festival.
Quite a few of those ahead of Fox Norton in the ante-post betting for the Ryanair Chase may run elsewhere or not at all. Min, Footpad and Un De Sceaux are quoted for the Champion Chase (as is Fox Norton, to be fair, but the Ryanair now seems highly likely), while Road To Respect, Al Boum Photo, Kemboy, Frodon and Monalee may be found in the Cheltenham Gold Cup lists.
The last-named is another highly likely to turn up in the Ryanair, for which he is strongly fancied in some quarters.
Maybe, but he looks vulnerable to me. He was run over by Presenting Percy in the RSA Chase at the last Cheltenham Festival, and was beaten at Down Royal and Leopardstown (behind Kemboy) this season before winning a weak Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park on Saturday.
Monalee got to dictate matters at Gowran but still beat the Grand National fourth Anibale Fly by just two lengths (admittedly conceding him 7 lb) at a two-and-a-half-mile trip which would not have played to the latter’s strengths. The overall time and closing sectionals compared unfavourably with the smart novice Duc Des Genievres later on the card.
Top Notch is a definite contender, having won a listed chase at Kempton last time from Black Corton (who ran well again at the weekend) and Charbel, with a strict line involving the last-named giving him a length and a half in hand of Fox Norton. But the Fox Norton of old was probably a slightly superior horse to Top Notch, and the Fox Norton of old looks very much as if he might still be with us.
Frodon would be running in the Ryanair rather than the Cheltenham Gold Cup if he were mine. He landed the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham last time over a trip not far short of the Gold Cup’s, but he was stopping at the end of that (pedestrian closing sectional) and was fortunate to be up against one who needs further in Elegant Escape and one currently operating below the top level in Terrefort.
Frodon is very good at carrying big weights in handicaps, not least here, but has disappointed more than once at level weights against the best, including a last-of-five finishers in this race last year.
The Ryanair Chase could look different in a few weeks’ time, but at this stage it seems well worth siding with a proven performer who should be right back to his best now and seems more likely than most to be lining up on the day. Double-figure odds arguably do not accord Fox Norton due respect.
Verdict: win FOX NORTON