3.30 Cheltenham Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
Wednesday 16 March 2016
The feature race on the second day of the festival is the Champion Chase, and the first four home in last year’s heat are back to have another crack this year. Dodging Bullets is the reigning champ and Somersby, Special Tiara and Sire De Grugy will be looking to reverse the form with the Paul Nicholls inmate. A rejuvenated Sprinter Sacre adds even more depth to the race, and it looks to be a fiercely competitive contest.
However, of the sixteen horses still standing their ground six are trained by Willie Mullins, and while Vautour looks like going for the Gold Cup he still has Un De Sceaux, who is currently odds on to win the race for the very first time for the Irish trainer. It is not a race Mullins has done well in over the years, and his best performance in recent seasons was a fourth place for the ill fated Golden Silver back in 2011.
UN DE SCEAUX 8/11 PADDY POWER
This 8yo son of Denham Red has been a superb horse for connections and he has never been beaten when he has finished the race. His only two defeats came when he was a faller at Thurles and Leopardstown, and when he tipped up in those races he looked all over the winner at the time of the falls. He has won 14 from 16, including 4 Grade 1 chases and he is the banker of the festival in the eyes of many.
He absolutely hacked up on his first visit to the festival last season, cruising home in the Arkle by 8L from God’s Own and it was a truly scintillating round of jumping. Two miles looks to be his optimum trip and he handles any sort of ground. He had an ideal prep for this race at Ascot back in January when beating Sire De Grugy in authoritative fashion, and it is hard to pick holes in his form. He almost looks bulletproof and barring accidents it looks like it is his race to lose.
SPRINTER SACRE 9/2 SKYBET
Nicky Henderson’s 10yo son of Network is a two time festival winner, taking the Arkle in 2012 and this race in 2013. However, it was revealed he had heart problems after he was pulled up on his seasonal reappearance back in December 2013 and after a long lay-off he didn’t look like the same horse when he made his comeback in January 2015. A second at Ascot behind Special Tiara was followed by a lifeless effort when pulled up behind Dodging Bullets in this race last year, and it looked as though he was on an irreversible downhill spiral.
However, he has shown definite signs of life this season and he has bagged a couple of Grade 2s, beating Somersby by 14L here in November and then following that up with a battling win at Kempton when he was all out to beat Sire De Grugy by less than a length. That bare form would suggest he has a few lengths to find with Un De Sceaux and it is hard to see him keeping pace with that relentless galloper. It would be marvellous if he turned up at his very best and put it up to the favourite, but at 10yo and with his chequered past it is hard to see him lowering the colours of the Mullins’ charge.
DODGING BULLETS 12/1 BOYLESPORTS
The reigning champion chaser has been put up at double figure odds to defend his crown and this is a race that Paul Nicholls has won five times since 1999. This 8yo son of Dubawi is 6/11 since going chasing and three of those have been Grade 1s. He has an excellent record at Cheltenham, winning
four from eight, and he was also an excellent fourth in the Triumph Hurdle back in 2012.
He has had just the one run since his victory here last year, and it wasn’t the best of efforts behind Top Gamble at Newbury (16.5f soft) in a Grade 2 chase. However, his very best form has come on decent ground and he was also beaten first time out last season. He will likely come on in leaps and bounds from that run and with better ground probable at the festival he will put up a bold defence of his crown. At his current odds of 12/1 he is of definite interest from an each way perspective.
SIRE DE GRUGY 14/1 BET365
This 10yo son of My Risk was the winner of this race back in 2014, and he has been a brilliant flag bearer for the Gary Moore stable. It could be argued that it was perhaps a weaker renewal of the race that year than it usually is, but you can only beat what is put in front of you and he did it in style, beating perennial bridesmaid Somersby by 6L into second. He didn’t have the best of years last year, and he could only manage fourth in this race in 2015, 10L behind Dodging Bullets.
However, it has been much more like it this season and three of his four runs have been excellent. He beat Special Tiara in the Tingle Creek at Sandown by just under a length, and he was beaten by the same margin by Sprinter Sacre at Kempton next time. In his final prep run at Ascot he was the only horse to try and put it up to Un De Sceaux, but he was eventually brushed aside by the Mullins’ horse and it is hard to see him turning that form around. Outside place claims at best at odds of 14/1.
SPECIAL TIARA 14/1 BETVICTOR
This 9yo son of Kayf Tara has been a wonderful servant to Henry De Bromhead and he is a dual Grade 1 chase winner. He slammed Sprinter Sacre by 6L at Sandown last April and his other Grade 1 win came at a big price at Aintree back in 2013 when he beat Overturn by 2L. He has had just two runs so far this season, and though he was well beaten on soft ground at Naas on his reappearance back in November, it was much more like it last time out at Sandown.
Back on a decent surface he pushed the Sire De Grugy all the way in the Tingle Creek, and with even better ground likely at the festival he looks sure to run a solid race. The ground is key to this spectacular jumper and he showed he isn’t just a flat track specialist with a superb effort here last year when third to Dodging Bullets. Of the bigger priced horses he is interesting, once the ground comes up good, and it would be no surprise to see him bang there jumping the last. He should give each way punters a good run for their money at odds of 14/1.
FELIX YONGER 16/1 LADBROKES
The Willie Mullins second string according to the prices, but this 10yo son of Oscar is a serious horse and it would be no surprise to see him run a big race. He is 8/14 over fences and he took the Grade 1 Champion Chase at Punchestown last season (16f good to yielding). He was beaten on his seasonal reappearance at Clonmel (20f soft) but his last two runs have been much more encouraging.
He beat Bright New Dawn in a Grade 2 at Navan on heavy (17f) on his penultimate run back in December, and followed that up with another Grade 2 win at Punchestown (16f soft/heavy) in his prep run for this back in January. He has run twice at the festival in the past, chasing home the classy Simonsig in the Neptune in 2012, and then coming home in fourth in the JLT back in 2014. He has it to do to beat the likes of Un De Sceaux and Sprinter Sacre if they turn up at their best, but if they don’t he will be ready to take advantage and he will be staying on late when others have cried enough. Could sneak a place at odds of 16/1.
BEST OF THE REST
At even bigger prices there are a couple of contenders that are worth a second look. Somersby has been a wonderful campaigner over the years for Mick Channon, but he is a 12yo now and his two runs this year would suggest he is on the wane. He has been mooted as a possible runner in the Grand Annual, for which he would be top weight, and he would perhaps have a better chance of getting that elusive festival win in that heat than in this race. He has been runner up in this race three times, including last year, but realistically it looks as though his chance of winning this Grade 1 prize has passed him by.
God’s Own represents the Tom George yard and this 8yo son of Oscar can currently be backed at odds of 33/1 with Ladbrokes. He was a Grade 1 novice chase winner at a big price at Punchestown (16f yielding) back in May2014, and he ran arguably the best race of his career here in the Arkle last season when he was runner up behind Un De Sceaux, beaten 6L. He has had a couple of runs on soft ground this season, and was well beaten on both occasions. However, he has shown a distinct preference for decent ground and with solid festival form in the book he could run a big race at odds of 33/1 back on a sounder surface.
I would love to be more original in my selection for the winner of this race, but on all known form Un De Sceaux looks impossible to oppose. The only hope for the rest of the field is if he tips up, but if he puts in a clear round it is hard to see anything but a wide margin win for the Mullins’ charge. With Special Tiara in the field he won’t have it all his own way out in front, and this race looks sure to be run at an absolutely furious pace.
That will put pressure on the jumping of the likes of Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy, and they simply can’t afford to make any mistakes. The relentless gallop could bring stamina into play, and one horse that will be finishing off better than most is Felix Yonger. God’s Own and Dodging Bullets are two strong travellers that will also appreciate a sound gallop, and each way players could do worse than having a couple of quid on those three at big prices. However, it is difficult to see anything beating Un De Sceaux and he is a confident selection to win a first Champion Chase for Willie Mullins.
1. UN DE SCEAUX
2. DODGING BULLETS
3. FELIX YONGER