The embryonic picture of the 2016 Queen Mother Champion Chase was similar to that of the Cheltenham 2016 Champion Hurdle, in that the season started with a hotpot Willie Mullins-trained favourite.
Not only did the respective races have that in common, but the early market leaders in each division suffered campaign-opening defeats suggesting they may not be the good things many felt.
As discussed in our Champion Hurdle preview, Faugheen was the horse in question over hurdles. Over fences in the two-mile division, Un De Sceaux was the horse bookmakers, early doors, felt was the one to beat.
Is that still the case? Our man Declan Rix casts his eye over the race from an ante-post perspective here.
Queen Mother Champion Chase ante-post preview
There can be no denying it, the second of the Cheltenham Festival championship races is at the mercy of another Willie Mullins-trained runner, Un De Sceaux.
The brilliant 2015 Arkle Novices’ Chase winner will hope to plot a similar path like past greats Moscow Flyer, Sizing Europe and Sprinter Sacre in winning an Arkle before going on to success in one of steeplechasing’s most prestigious prizes, the Champion Chase.
Having started the season with a fall at Leopardstown over the Festive period, the eight-year-old once more had his doubters. He’s a horse that hasn’t warmed all National Hunt fans up despite his obvious raw ability.
Maybe it is punters, many jumping fans, that had doubts and looking at him from an analytical point of view you can see why, Un De Sceaux has often had that crazy horse look about him.
A keen-going, exuberant and headstrong character, the son of Denham Red sometimes doesn’t race in a way that maximises his potential, and this, along with jumping obstacles at ferocious speeds often means his fans, and indeed his jockey, have their hearts in their mouths.
This is especially the case when running first-time out after an extended break. Well in himself after a rest, Un De Sceaux can race far too aggressively and it can hinder his ability to jump accurately.
Twice this has been seen in recent seasons: Un De Sceaux in each of his last two campaign openers has fallen. While worrying, it’s encouraging to note on his second start back after a break he has been far more tractable, intelligent in jumping and won in style.
His jumping does not concern us in the slightest once he has a run under his belt and dare we say it, his fall at Leopardstown over Christmas was possibly more the fault of Ruby Walsh than him.
The pair have since bounced back in fantastic style, winning the Grade 1 Sodexo Clarence House Chase at Ascot. In beating an inform Sire De Grugy by five lengths under the Gary Moore’s horse ideal conditions, it was a big statement pre-Cheltenham. Quite simply, he’s the one they all have to beat, but at a price of 4/5 is no good to us from an ante-post betting perspective.
With Un De Sceaux so readily turning over Sire De Grugy (12/1), it’s hard to envisage the tables being turned at Cheltenham come March. Gary Moore’s charge is a top-class racehorse, a winner of five Grade 1s, including the 2014 Queen Mother Champion Chase, but at the age of ten, it’s hard to see him improving.
We’ve always felt soft ground and tracks like Ascot and Kempton are ideal for him despite the son of My Risk winning many good races on quicker terrain. Back at Cheltenham on potential spring ground means others are better equipped to get closer to Un De Sceaux.
Many will feel one such horse is Sprinter Sacre (5/1), the brilliant winner of the 2013 Queen Mother Champion Chase and six other Grade 1 events. In his pomp during the 2012 and 2013 calendar years, Sprinter Sacre was the most exciting horse in National Hunt racing and one of the true greats of the modern era.
His 2013/14 campaign was a disaster, however. Health issues with a defibrillating heart (has also struggled with his wind) saw him race just once where he was pulled up at Kempton behind Sire De Grugy.
These issues saw his career nosedive and while he still operates at a high level, the brilliant Sprinter Sacre of old, the near untouchable Sacre, is gone.
This season, he returned to winning ways with a heart-warming and visually brilliant 15 lengths victory in the Grade 2 Shloer Chase at Cheltenham in November before he just got the better of Sire De Grugy at Kempton in the Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase over Christmas.
And that there lies the potential problem, his form ties him closely with Sire De Grugy who has since been put in his place by Un De Sceaux. It must also be said Sprinter Sacre was a slightly fortunate winner at Kempton, a last fence mistake from the runner-up certainly helped his cause.
At a current price of 5/1 we can pass on him for now, his past brilliant glories can’t mask his current, albeit classy, form. Nicky Henderson going straight to the Cheltenham Festival on the back of an extended break is a plus, however, and he’s one we certainly respect when really fresh.
A horse whose collateral form links him strongly with both Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy is Special Tiara (12/1), the 2015 Champion Chase third. A two-time Grade One-winning chaser for Henry De Bromhead, he beat Sprinter Sacre in April 2015 by five lengths in the Celebration Chase at Sandown.
This season he was a hugely unlucky runner-up behind Sire De Grugy in the Tingle Creek, again at Sandown, where a last fence mid-air clash with the winner may well have cost him the race. In the end, he was beaten by three parts of a length.
There is every chance he can turn that form around with Sire De Grugy on better ground especially considering, despite winning many good races going right-handed, he gave the impression reverting to a left-handed track would suit.
On faster ground and going the other way round, we are sure he can jump better, an element of his game that let him down a touch at the Esher venue.
The son of Kayf Tara hasn’t been seen since, but is due to run at Punchestown in the Tied Cottage Chase. There is a chance he will shorten in the betting in the run-up to the Champion Chase – he already offers better value than Sprinter Sacre – and while a positive where this blog is concerned, we are not quite sure he offers enough each-way value at this stage especially when you consider he’ll not get an easy lead with Un De Sceaux in the field. With that said, he holds strong claims of hitting the frame.
One of the horses to finish ahead of Special Tiara in last season’s Champion Chase was Dodging Bullets, the winner. A horse who has historically always had a touch of class he finally put it all together last season when winning his maiden Grade 1.
He didn’t just win one, however; as well as the Champion Chase victory, two other top-level successes came in the Tingle Creek and Clarence House Chase. It was a breakthrough season for this fantastically economical jumper.
He hasn’t been seen since, though, and that has to be a worry. This, coupled with him winning what was probably a substandard Queen Mother last year means we can leave him alone at this juncture.
In what may be a much stronger renewal on the back of an interrupted campaign, it makes sense to duck the Paul Nicholls-trained runner currently.
Simonsig is another horse who is hard to recommend given the long list of injuries he has suffered through his career. When winning the Arkle Novices’ Chase at the 2013 Cheltenham Festival having won the year’s previous Neptune Novices’ Hurdle, the world looked at his feet, but his body simply hasn’t stood up to the rigours of training.
Thankfully Nicky Henderson and his team got him back to the track this season, but his one run at Aintree behind Bobs Worth doesn’t inspire much confidence. While no horse is guaranteed to line up at Cheltenham in March, Simonsig’s profile suggests he has less chance than your average of doing so. He’s one to duck ante-post.
We have much more positive feelings about Traffic Fluide, however, another horse trained by Gary Moore. Moore, famous for his exploits with Sire De Grugy, has a potential heir apparent in this young and improving chaser.
Just six-years-old and only ten career starts under his belt, we feel there is potential for so much more with this progressive type.
Since joining the Moore yard, all Traffic Fluide has done is improve. You can see why connections wasted little time with hurdles and asked him to compete over the larger obstacles immediately upon his arrival; he is built for chasing and is a superb jumper.
Last season as a novice was a steep upward curve for him. Having ran below expectations on his debut for the Moore team, the son of Astarabad soon hit top gear and reeled off form figures of 2113. In those four runs he went from running in handicaps off 125 to finishing third in an Aintree Grade 1 novice, the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase.
The current season started slowly, we saw him for the first time in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot. On his seasonal debut, he ran an absolute cracker finishing third behind Un De Sceaux, registering a career best in the process, beaten just five lengths with near guaranteed progress to come.
The run also suggested he may improve a little further running left-handed so while a worry he has no Cheltenham course form; the configuration at least should help. He’s a lovely, young horse and one we feel capable of hitting the frame in a Champion Chase.
Best of the Rest
The Grade 1 novices’ chase in which Traffic Fluide was third in last season was a race that really had us thinking where this piece was concerned. Won by Henry De Bromhead’s Sizing Granite, he is another young chaser we felt could do well at the start of the season. Things haven’t panned out for him this time round, however, the son of Milan hasn’t reached the heights of last season in two runs, meaning he is best left at the moment.
Second in that contest was Tom George’s Gods Own, a horse that previously finished second to Un De Sceaux in the 2015 Arkle.
A Grade 1 winner as a novice, he’s probably a horse that has been underestimated given his low-key connections. He’s a nice horse, though, and the type to do much better in the spring.
He’s a big price on last season’s Arkle run, but with talk of him potentially going up in trip to the Ryanair, he is potentially hard to recommend at this moment from an ante-post perspective.
Felix Yonger, one of Willie Mullins’s other entries for this race, is a good solid horse, but at the age of ten, is probably vulnerable to younger, more progressive sorts. Mullins’s Champagne Fever is another with an entry, but will not run.
Josses Hill surprised many by finishing third in last season’s Arkle behind Un De Sceaux, but he’s a horse that has never convinced over fences and is easily left. The old warrior Somersby is too old to go close in these events now and is another to duck.
The BetBright Verdict
The second race we’ve covered where a Willie Mullins horse holds strong claims. Un De Sceaux is the obvious horse to beat, but at a price of 4/5 we’ll be taking him on with an each-way play.
The biggest danger to him losing is possibly rattling quick ground, he seems best with some give underfoot. Many have crabbed his jumping, but for us, it’s of no concern.
Their current frail nature means the likes of Dodging Bullets (10/1) and Simonsig (12/1) are easily passed over at the prices.
Sizing Granite, at 33/1, is harder to do so given his big price, but those odds are reflective of his current form; the smart play is to pass.
The formbook tells us there is very little between Sprinter Sacre (4/1), Sire De Grugy (12/1) and Special Tiara (12/1). Former great Sprinter Sacre is easily discarded here of the trio on value grounds.
Both Sire De Grugy and Special Tiara are more than twice the price of the aforementioned Nicky Henderson horse, but others look to offer better value at this stage.
The two horses we are struggling to separate are Traffic Fluide and God’s Own.
On last season’s Arkle second behind the current race-favourite Un De Sceaux, God’s Own looks a pretty big price at 33/1. He’s only run once this campaign due to unsuitable going, but that third in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter on terrain too slow was a good effort all things considered.
He showed last season he is capable of running well fresh at the Cheltenham Festival. Just gone eight, there is every chance he can improve when the weather warms up.
The two worries we have are: one, him not running here and two, his slight preference for running right-handed. All in all, 33/1 is too big and worth a small each-way bet.
The main selection therefore is TRAFFIC FLUIDE. He’s a horse that caught our eye last season as a novice, but his recent return behind Un De Sceaux in the Clarence House Chase really, really impressed us.
At the age of six with so few miles on the clock he surely is a big candidate to improve further. His lack of Cheltenham form has to be a concern, but he looks a straight-forward enough horse and his fluent jumping will always be a big asset.
Twenty-to-one is a fair price based on his seasonal return and with the prospect of getting shorter before Cheltenham, he makes most sense to us at this time.
1.5pts each-way Traffic Fluide @20/1
0.5pt each-way God’s Own @33/1
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.