The 2016 Cheltenham Festival will see the 12th running of the Ryanair Chase, a relatively new addition to the schedule. The old school and purest National Hunt fans didn’t welcome the new race – run over a distance of two miles and five furlongs – feeling it would take away from the Queen Mother Champion Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup, but for us, it was a welcome addition and is now properly part of the Cheltenham Festival furniture.
While we agree it does detract from the aforementioned championship races, some years worse than others, it’s nice for those owners and trainers who have horses that fall more kindly into the intermediate trip category to have a real shot at winning at horseracing’s biggest festival.
So who will be victorious this year? Our man Declan Rix takes a closer look here.
Ryanair Chase Ante-Post Preview
At the time of writing, this year’s Ryanair Chase is an extremely hard race to get a grip of. Most of those to the fore in the market are not certain runners, many could compete a day later in the Gold Cup while some may take the option of running in the day’s previous Champion Chase.
In terms of our bets, this kind of scenario can work both ways. On a positive note, if we take a stab at one or possibly two of the current outsiders and many of those heading the market don’t turn up in the Ryanair, there is a great chance of us obtaining some serious value with a view to running well on the day.
On the other hand, should we swing the bat at those currently trading at a working man’s prices and the present favourite(s) run in the Ryanair, we may be fighting a losing battle on the day. We’re going to be positive, though, and looking at those who currently lead the market, as many as the first six or so horses in the betting may compete elsewhere.
The current race-favourite is Vautour, the 2014 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and 2015 runaway JLT Novices’ Chase winner. Already a dual-Cheltenham Festival hero, this is one of the classiest horses in training and a personal favourite of ours.
Basically, if Vautour runs here, he wins and the better the ground the further he’ll triumph. While the case, connections – Rich Ricci and Willie Mullins – appear to be strongly leaning towards a Gold Cup tilt despite the son of Robin Des Champs having to answer serious stamina questions.
If he were ours, he’d take in this year’s Ryanair Chase and compete in the 2017 Cheltenham Gold Cup. At the age of seven, time is still very much on his side, but where this piece is concerned, we have to respect connections’ wishes and pass on this strapping gelding.
Gordon Elliot’s Don Cossack is another top-class chaser who holds entries in the Ryanair Chase and Gold Cup, but he is another that looks bound for the Blue Riband event on Friday and so, makes little appeal here.
Another Rich Ricci and Willie Mullins entry, Vroum Vroum Mag is unlikely to run here with hurdle options seemingly preferred while their Champagne Fever has already been ruled out of the Festival.
All the above would hold strong claims in this year’s Ryanair, their presence (potentially) lacking really depletes the race. Furthermore, there are others to the head of the market who could take on different challenges.
One horse that may still run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but is more likely to take his chance here is Smad Place (7/1), the 2015 Hennessy Gold Cup winner. This commendable grey was devastating when romping home by 12 lengths at Newbury, leaving the rest of the field tolling.
Alan King then sent the nine-year-old to the King George VI Chase where he ran credibly to finish fourth of nine runners. Having won the Hennessy with bold front-running tactics it was a surprise to see connections revert to a more passive policy down in trip. While you couldn’t say it cost him his winning chance, it may well have scuppered his ability to finish third.
A horse who is always keen, but stays well, front-running aggressive strategies will more than likely allow Smad Place to show his best. Should he run in the Ryanair, the drop to two miles five furlongs couldn’t be considered ideal, but he jumps so well and has a touch of class meaning, he has to be shortlisted.
In that King George Al Ferof (10/1), another grey, finished just over three lengths ahead of Smad Place in third. It was a cracking run from the 11-year-old who creeped his way into contention before being left for dead by the winner (Cue Card) and runner-up (Vautour).
Not for the first time in his career he didn’t convince over this three miles trip. Dan Skelton’s horse has yet to win over the distance albeit, he has run in some good contests when trying. His owner, John Hales has always wanted to go to the Gold Cup with this horse and their third place effort in the King George means he may get his way.
Even if he runs in the Ryanair, heading into the twilight phase of his career, we wonder can the old boy compete with younger, sharper rivals over the intermediate trip. He’ll be staying on at the death, but might be fighting a losing battle at that stage.
Gigginstown House Stud is owned by Ryanair supremo Michael O’Leary, the company that sponsor this very race. Since it’s inauguration, Gigginstown have yet to land their own prize despite running some nice horses.
At this stage, they have seven horses entered. Don Cossack won’t run here. Bright New Dawn, Clarcam, Roi Du Mee and Sir Des Champs, for various different reasons, don’t interest us, but two horses that certainly make the radar are Road To Riches and Valseur Lido.
Road To Riches (10/1) was an excellent third in the 2015 Cheltenham Gold behind Coneygree despite the ground possibly going against him after rain had fallen throughout the day. He jumped well and travelled nicely; it was a proper performance from a good horse.
There is little doubt he is good enough to win this race especially if the likes of Vautour go to the Gold Cup. The main worry we have is if he will run here, we simply don’t know. An educated guess would say, for our money, he runs on the Friday. How could Gigginstown send a horse who finished third in a Gold Cup to a different race when last year’s winner (Coneygree) won’t be lining up to defend his crown?
It would be an incredibly tough call on Noel Meade to run in the Ryanair, but Gigginstown aren’t afraid to make those type of decisions and with two live chances in Don Cossack and Don Poli in the Blue Riband race, will they want a third horse in? We have no idea at the moment and either do connections this far out, but our instinct tells us we’ll see Road To Riches in the Festival showpiece a day later.
This may mean Valseur Lido (12/1) will get the Gigginstown call to represent in their own race. A potential problem is Willie Mullins wanting to run in the Gold Cup, however; the Irish champion trainer has always felt this seven-year-old a staying type. Indeed, he was proved right when under Ruby Walsh, Valseur Lido won his second Grade 1 as a novice in the Growise Champion Novice Chase at the Punchestown Festival, his first attempt at the three-mile trip. It was a good performance considering the early ground he conceded to the runner-up, who is no mug, Wounded Warrior.
While a concern he won’t run here, Gigginstown are big enough to overrule Mullins and with the Closutton-based trainer already holding an imperiously strong hand (Don Poli, Djakadam, Vautour) in the Gold Cup, he may be sanctioned to run Valseur Lido in the owner’s own race. For us, this would be the correct call.
Proven stamina over further is rarely a bad asset to have in horseracing and it can especially come in handy at the Cheltenham Festival where there is a sound possibility of races being run at ‘championship pace’. With this being the case, the slick-jumping and nicely keen travelling Valseur Lido looks tailor-made for the Ryanair test.
Third in last season’s JLT Novices’ Chase behind Vautour, he has always looked like a horse that would improve with time. Tall, leggy and possibly still weak last season, he may be a better horse this year.
He started the season well at least with an excellent second to Djakadam in the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown when clearly in need of the run on ground he found too soft. Next time out he was considered good enough to contest the King George at Kempton over Christmas.
He received a strange ride, though – his jockey was pretty easy on him – before they fell. Furthermore, Jacques Ricou failed to get his mount into a sound jumping rhythm on the last circuit and while coming to grief at the last was an obvious disappointment, he may not have been too far off finishing third. That would’ve been near enough a career best meaning it looks like he has more to offer.
Another horse that looks to potentially have more in his locker is Champagne West (20/1). A useful novice hurdler, chasing was always going to be his game given his size and strength. He ran a lovely race to be fourth in the 2014 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle when possibly finding the trip a touch too far when still a weak horse.
When sent over fences, he duly improved and scored on debut. Having won his second novice chase start he was then runner-up to, at the time, a very classy-looking Ptit Zig despite his jumping holding him back. This facet of his game let him down next time out at Sandown when he fell and injured a hock.
Out for 11 months, the son of Westerner made a lovely start to the current campaign when a gallant second in the Caspian Caviar December Gold Cup over the Ryanair course and distance. Although he did make one serious error, it was highly encouraging to see the Philip Hobbs-trained inmate jump with fluency, in the main.
If this element of his game is now more polished, we feel Champagne West can climb the ladder. He needs to improve to even be placed in a Ryanair, but he has scope to do so. Richard Johnson, his probable big-race jockey, at times looked indecisive aboard this eight-year-old when jumping last season. If he can make up his mind approaching fences and the horse continues to progress, both can be players in this race.
Best of the Rest
The loveable and gallant mare Ma Filleule (16/1) may be done an injustice by not going into the main copy given she was second in this race last year, but she hasn’t been in as good a form this season, for all she likes decent ground and improves into the spring. If she progresses as the days get longer, she holds each-way claims. Should Vibrato Valtat (16/1) improve for the trip, he is a big player, but that’s a sizeable ‘if’ and horses coming to the Festival trying to prove their stamina is not something we are overly keen on. Sound Investment (16/1) and Village Vic (16/1) bring strong handicap form, but probably need to up their games. JP McManus’s Gilgamboa (16/1) is a nice horse, but we are not sure if he will line-up here.
The BetBright Verdict
A race that is in the lap of the gods at the moment, plenty of trainers will be shuffling their packs in the days leading up to the Festival and quite simply, we don’t know how many of those to the top of this market will run here.
With that being the case, the obvious names like Don Cossack, Vautour and Vroum Vroum Mag are not considered. Of those three, Vautour is the most likely to pitch up and if he does, it’s probably curtains for our bets. He’s a very good horse and on spring ground is unopposable over this trip.
Al Ferof is another we’ll take on as he’s not sure to line-up either. Even if connections decide on running him in the Ryanair, can he win at the age of 11? We doubt it.
Gigginstown have yet to score in the race they sponsor and have a host of classy animals entered. With Don Cossack very much Gold Cup bound and most of their team below the required level, Road To Riches and Valseur Lido are the two horses with the ability to run well here who might actually run.
Guesswork is required on our part, but of that pair, Valseur Lido is the more likely runner for us. Road To Riches will surely be given another crack at National Hunt racing’s most prestigious prize having run so well in the 2015 renewal.
The two greys, Smad Place and Vibrato Valtat, despite being the same colour, are very much different in all other aspects, but both are worth taking on. Smad Place is a classy horse who is guaranteed to stay and can go close with an aggressive, prominent ride, but he offers little value at this juncture.
On the other hand, Vibrato Valtat has stamina to prove and is interesting at the prices given he is a classy, consistent sort, but is opposable over a trip that may very well stretch him.
The beautiful and gallant mare Ma Filleule is another that looks a fair price especially when you consider she was second in this race last season. We know she’s better in the spring, but even so, her form so far this campaign has been a touch disappointing and we will look elsewhere.
By a process of elimination CHAMPAGNE WEST gets a tentative nod in this ante-post book. He’s a bit of a risky selection given he needs to improve to take a hand, but he’s young enough to progress further. His jumping last season was his Achilles heel and while he did make one serious error on his 2015/16 debut, he looked more assured under Tom O’Brien, so much so, we’d love for him to keep the ride, but that’s highly unlikely with Richard Johnson the stable jockey.
We are also going to suggest a win only bet on Willie Mullins’s VALSEUR LIDO despite him possibly not lining up. We think Gigginstown may opt to send this seven-year-old here in the hope of landing their own race despite Willie Mullins probably asking to run him elsewhere over trip further of two miles five furlongs. If the race cuts up badly, like it could very well do, and he runs, he’ll have a great chance at near half the price.
1pt each-way CHAMPAGNE WEST @20/1
1pt win VALSEUR LIDO @12/1
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.