Champagne West tipped for the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at sandown
Only five go to post for this prestigious novice event, which has been won by some high-class chasers over the years, notably Best Mate. Prior to 1988, it was run at a distance of two miles, with dual Champion Chase hero Royal Relief the pick of the earlier winners.
Despite the small field, the race is strong in terms of quality, as evidenced by the fact that Grade 1 winner Grumeti is predicted to be the rank outsider by early oddsmakers.
Grumeti seems a fair enough place to start too, and while he’s not bred to be a chaser, he isn’t an unlikely sort in terms of physique, and made a smooth transition to his new discipline at Bangor in May.
A poor effort at Warwick on his return from a summer break raised doubts about how well he would progress, but he was much more enthusiastic when beating Chris Pea Green at Plumpton (a favourite venue of his trainer) on his most recent start.
He was receiving weight from his main rival at Plumpton, and only won by 1¼ lengths, but it should be pointed out that he was in control before the last and seemed to idle in front, which masks his superiority.
That bare form gives him something to find, but he’s being brought along gradually by Alan King, and it would be folly to assume he’s reached the limit of his potential just yet, allowing for the fact that he was fully exposed over hurdles. His tendency to idle in front sees him fitted with cheekpieces now, and the headgear should prove beneficial, if not decisive.
A line through Chris Pea Green suggests that Irish Saint has a clear edge over Grumeti, given that Paul Nicholls’ 5-y-o beat the former by ten lengths at level weights here in November in what was his first start over fences.
He failed to justify short odds in the Henry VIII over the same C&D next time, but that was a messy race in which he shaped well, and then bounced back to his best when beating the useful Thomas Crapper by a wide margin at Ascot.
Nearest rival, and race favourite, Puffin Billy fell there, but had already had his measure taken by the slick-jumping winner, and it’s form which looks very strong on the whole. All his form over fences has come right handed, which might be an issue if he heads to Cheltenham in just under six weeks, but it should be taken as a positive in this contest, and he merits maximum respect.
Champagne West, on the other hand, has done all his racing over the larger obstacles at Prestbury Park, so does need to prove he’s as effective at this different track in theory, although it’s hard to imagine he’ll have any issues given the level of form he showed over hurdles, winning in impressive style at Ascot a year ago.
He didn’t impress with his jumping when winning a 2-finisher event in December, but that was a rather farcical contest, and he was near foot-perfect when beaten at the hands of Ptit Zig on New Year’s Day; the winner looks the best British-trained novice we’ve seen all year, and the runner-up impressed with the way he stuck to his task, if anything showing improved form in doing so.
It’s easy to assume that Paul Nicholls has the upper hand here, given he trains both Ptit Zig and Irish Saint, but things are rarely as simple as that, and Champagne West is one to underestimate at your peril.
Splash of Ginge won a Grade 3 handicap over the same C&D as the Dipper in which Champagne West was second at Cheltenham at the start of this month, and the handicapper was sufficiently impressed to give him an official rating of 153 for that, which makes him the highest rated in the contest.
He’s certainly not left out of calculations, but a direct comparison between the two events suggests that the novice event produced the best performance, admitting that such comparisons are never easy to make with certainty.
It’s true that the chestnut’s lofty rating says something about the opportunity he’s had to produce such a figure, and the chances are that a couple of others in this field would have produced a similar display given the chance. The other concern, and a much bigger one, is that the son of Oscar has finished unplaced for betting purposes every time he’s raced right handed.
It’s possible to make excuses for a couple of his below-par efforts going clockwise, but that patchy record means he’s hard to support at current prices.
The hardest of these to weigh up his the Willie Mullins-trained Gitane du Berlais, who was a smart juvenile, and who gets both the mares and the 5-y-o allowance, meaning she receives a hefty 11 lb from her four rivals.
She tackled only modest opposition on her chase bow at Limerick, and didn’t impress everyone with the way she jumped, but she could be called the winner bar a fall entering the home straight and she wasn’t helped by the efforts of her rider to restrain her exuberance in the closing stages – her awkwardness at the last few obstacles at least partially due to Danny Mullins’ ham-fisted attempts at equine dentistry.
Much better than the bare result of that success, she’s very much a dark horse in the field, but it’s doubtful how much the Limerick experience will have taught her, and it’s that lack of experience, rather than any failing ability-wise, which may prove her undoing at this level.
The BetBright Verdict
Selection: Champagne West
Danger: Irish Saint
The Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase goes off at 14.25 at Sandown Park on Saturday, January 31st.