By Barry McEneaney
3.20 BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase
The enforced absence of the reigning champion Sprinter Sacre casts a long shadow over this season’s Champion Chase.
With the ‘Black Aeroplane’ grounded with a heart problem, this could prove to be the weakest edition of the race in several seasons.
But question marks hang over the leading protagonists.
Sire De Grugy has been a model of consistency this season, winning four of his five starts and finishing second in his only defeat. He’s been progressive and boasts seemingly strong form. However, it’s easy to find fault with all of those performances.
His seasonal debut at Chepstow saw him hump a big weight to victory in fine style, but it came against horses who have either disappointed subsequently or proven themselves most effective over far longer distances.
A three-and-a-quarter length defeat to Kid Cassidy at Cheltenham on his next start came when conceding 10lbs to that rival, meaning he still emerged from that contest best at the weights, but it has to be a cause for concern that he hasn’t managed to get his head in front in his two visits to Prestbury Park.
Course form has traditionally played a major role in the outcome of races at the Festival, with six of the last ten Champion Chase winners having already scored here prior to landing this prize. Of those that hadn’t visited the winners’ enclosure, two were yet to race here, one finished second in the Arkle, and Big Zeb had fallen four from home in the 2009 instalment of this race.
Sire De Grugy’s first Grade One win over came in December’s Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown in a four-length defeat of Somersby. However, the performance wasn’t impressive from a time perspective as the novice Hinterland clocked a faster time in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase over the same course and distance just over an hour earlier.
It was a similar story in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas. While capitalising on Sprinter Sacre’s misfortune, he still couldn’t muster a better time than the one but up by the novice Dodging Bullets.
His latest win was far more visually impressive as he sauntered to an 11-length verdict over Hidden Cyclone in the Grade One Clarence House Chase at Ascot, but he may have been slightly flattered by the winning margin as the runner-up is almost certainly a better horse on a sounder surface than the one he encountered at the Berkshire circuit.
Gary Moore’s stable star is clearly in the form of his life but whether that will be good enough, and more importantly, whether favouritism at 9-4 represents value, are very different matters.
Arvika Ligeonniere is supremely talented but wouldn’t appear to be suited by the conditions he’ll face. Willie Mullins’ French import runs like clockwork, that is when he runs clockwise. On right-handed tracks he boasts a record of eight victories from ten starts, racing anti-clockwise the record reads one from six. That solitary success came at the highest level in last season’s Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown. His raw talent enabled him to triumph despite jumping markedly to his right on a number of occasions.
The son of Arvico has made two previous visits to the Festival. His first foray saw him finish fourth behind Berties Dream in the 2010 instalment of the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. He travelled notably well on that occasion before his stamina understandably ebbed away over a trip far in excess of his best to finish a yawning 27 lengths behind the winner.
Ruby Walsh’s mount was pulled up in last year’s Arkle Chase after committing a couple of jumping errors before bouncing back in effortless style on bottomless ground at the Punchestown Festival.
Arvika Ligeonniere is probably the biggest horse in Willie Mullins’ Closutton yard and there has to be a concern over his suitability to handle racing over fences on lively ground.
Less testing terrain means that racing over the minimum trip isn’t ideal. If he is to prevail, it will be despite the challenges posed and not because of them.
Captain Conan has much to recommend him on last season’s form. The Nicky Henderson inmate accounted for Sire De Grugy over course and distance on his seasonal debut on his very first start over fences. The two-length success was all the more impressive as the runner-up had the benefit of an earlier run and had already made his chasing bow.
Barry Geraghty’s mount arrived at last season’s Jewson Novices’ Chase unbeaten over the larger obstacles and was in contention jumping the last, but the petrol tank emptied in the final half-furlong as he faded into fifth.
His preparation for this season’s Cheltenham engagement has been rather unsatisfactory on a number of levels. His sole start of the campaign came when a well-beaten third behind Sire De Grugy in the Tingle Creek.
Captain Conan has previously run well fresh so perhaps he can overcome his long absence, but there may be a doubt over whether one start provides sufficient foundation and conditioning to get a horse to peak fitness for this target. The previous ten winners of this race had all amassed between two and four starts before triumphing here.
Scant explanation has been given for his long absence. In a Racing Post stable tour, Henderson insisted that a number of “issues” with the horse had been addressed.
Fans, and by extension the betting public, have been left to speculate on just what those problems may have been and that’s not an acceptable situation. In better-run racing jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Japan, such oblique references to the health of a major contender for a championship race wouldn’t be tolerated.
Reports from Seven Barrows suggest the horse is working well, but these dispatches can’t be substantiated. Despite the doubts, he remains a serious challenger should he rekindle his previous form.
With reservations over the three horses at the head of the betting, the focus has to shift to one of their less-vaunted rivals. However, deciphering who is the best value each-way alternative is a devilishly-difficult task. Just as it’s possible to pick holes in the credentials of the main contenders, the outsiders in the field have a host of major negatives to overcome.
A number would appear to be past their prime, or most effective over longer trips, or simply lacking the class to trouble the judge in a normal year.
Paul Nicholls has to be commended for pitching the novice Hinterland in against his elders. With the brightest star in the chasing firmament sidelined, he’s grasped the nettle and rerouted the six-year-old from a hot renewal of the Arkle Chase to what might actually prove a less competitive race. The only wonder is that some of his rivals in the training ranks haven’t picked up on that possibility and followed suit. His bold move could pay off.
The second-season novice is unbeaten in two starts at Sandown this term. As mentioned earlier, he registered a faster time than Tingle Creek winner Sire De Grugy (who carried 5lbs more) when taking the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase.
Yet to race over fences at Prestbury Park, he does boast winning form over timber here from his days as a hurdler.
As a scopey six-year-old it’s highly unlikely that we’ve seen the best of him as yet and his absence from the track is by design as he runs so well fresh.
He should be well suited by the conditions of this race unlike a number of his competitors, but he will need to realise his undoubted potential and find significant improvement.
The versatile Baily Green reeled off a remarkable seven wins on the bounce last season and ran his best race in defeat against Simonsig in the Arkle.
He hasn’t been the same model of consistency during this campaign, alternating encouraging displays with abject performances at Gowran Park, Leopardstown, Thurles and again back at the Dublin circuit.
He showed little sign of life on that final start, but his previous visit here and the likelihood of a strongly-run race means he could bounce back to form and cause an upset.
In his pomp, Sizing Europe would have to have a favourite’s chance here. But his once considerable powers appear to be on the wane at the age of 12.
An inept round of jumping on his penultimate start at Down Royal and a comprehensive defeat at Leopardstown on his last outing means Henry de Bromhead’s flagbearer arrives here on the back of his worst ever preparation for a Festival.
Those searching for a glimmer of hope that he can recapture his old sparkle could point to the fact that he set too searching gallop in his last start and that his Cheltenham form warrants major respect, particularly in what could prove a sub-standard renewal.
Despite their status as big outsiders, Module, Wishfull Thinking and Special Tiara are three candidates that could outrun their odds.
The latter was predictably trounced by Arvika Ligeonniere on his most recent start in the mud at Punchestown, but has always looked a far better prospect when he can hear his hoofs rattle.
Third behind Kid Cassidy and Sire De Grugy at Cheltenham in November, he lost little caste in defeat as he set an unsustainable pace on that occasion.
If he could set a more sedate one he could go well for a very long way. But with a brisk early tempo likely he could well get harried into running too fast again, which would almost certainly see him wilt late on.
An Aintree winner last season, his best chance of a Grade One success this term will probably come on his return to that sharp track. However, he may still appeal to in-running bettors as back-to-lay material.
At the other end of the stamina spectrum, Module and Wishfull Thinnking could find their ample stamina drags them into the business end of the race should a brutal pace scenario arise.
Verdict: Of the top three in the betting, a resurgent Captain Conan would likely represent better value than Sire De Grugy or Arvika Ligeonniere, but his wellbeing has to be taken on trust.
Unlike the Champion Hurdle, where compelling cases could be made for the first five in the market, this race could be ripe for a major upset.
Those with Betfair accounts should consider laying the favourite at short odds in both the win and place markets. Hinterland and Baily Green appear intriguing alternatives to those who occupy loftier places in the market.
The 2006 renewal of the race produced a tricast of 3171.98 to a €1 stake. It may be worth perming a number of the outsiders in a speculative (albeit unlikely) attempt to land the motherload.
Alternative: Baily Green
Hinterland, 1pt win @ 12-1 (Paddy Power)
Baily Green, 1pt win @ 10-1 (Victor Chandler)