With exactly three weeks to the start of the Cheltenham Festival, we now move on to some of the novice chase events. First up is the Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase, more commonly known as ‘The Arkle’.
Run on the opening day of the Festival over two miles on the Old Course, this event is a test of jumping at speed. Here, Declan Rix casts his eye over this year’s potential runners.
Jumping fences is what National Hunt racing is all about. The Gold Cup is the Holy Grail where this discipline is concerned, but there is nothing quite like watching two mile chasers. Throw in the inexperience aspect of being a novice and you have a race that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
To add to what is always a great spectacle we have a horse by the name of Douvan heading the market for this year’s Arkle. Currently a 1/3 shot; that tells you all you need to know about this 6-year-old.
Owned by Rich Ricci and trained by Willie Mullins, this son of Walk In The Park simply won’t lose if he turns up in good health and jumps round. While the case, he still must do just that and as we saw with Faugheen recently, nothing is a given.
Douvan is everything you’d want in a steeplechaser. He’s got plenty of scope, is tall and athletic; jumping fences comes easy to him just like every other part of the game. The effort at which he goes about his business is sometimes scary. Everything just comes so easy to him.
Douvan will bid to win at back-to-back Festivals having won last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle by a cool 4 ½ lengths. He remains unbeaten in 7 starts since joining Willie Mullins. In those victories he boasts two top-level successes over hurdles and two over fences.
He’s going to be incredibly tough to beat, but is obviously of no use to us where this piece is concerned, he is too short in the betting. We’ll have to try and find an each-way bet to finish second or third to him.
The horse our traders feel is the biggest danger to the favourite is Vaniteux (6/1), a former classy hurdler who has made the transition from smaller obstacles to fences nicely. Three runs this season have yielded form figures of 121.
On his chase debut at Kempton, the son of Voix Du Nord created a deep impression in winning by 19 lengths. The final distance of victory flatters, but his jumping was really accurate and quick – two traits needed to succeed in this division. Despite him getting an easy lead, all things considered, it was a brilliant start to his new career.
Stepped up in grade next time out, Nicky Henderson’s inmate would suffer his first loss over the same course and distance he was previously successful. Given he shaped like much the best horse here, it was disappointing he got collared close home, running like a horse that may have been short of peak fitness.
To be fair to connections, he was beaten by a nice type in Ar Mad and having made a bad mistake at the first fence, that didn’t help his cause or thankfully dent his confidence. It was good to see Vaniteux bounce back next time out in the Grade 2 Lightening Novices’ Chase at Doncaster where a 3 ¼ length success was seen.
Under Nico de Boinville, the pair didn’t jump as well as they had in previous starts, but it didn’t stop them from winning with authority, idling late and looking value for more.
Douvan sits comfortably ahead of Vaniteux in the current market and the latter mentioned too has some breathing space from the chasing pack. The likes of L’Ami Serge, Sizing John, Garde La Victoire and The Game Changer are separated by just four betting points.
Coming into the season L’Ami Serge was a horse we were really looking forward to. Sadly, due to a couple of minor setbacks, an infection pre-Christmas being one, we didn’t see this Nicky Henderson horse until the New Year.
It looked like the son of King’s Theatre was quickly going to make up for lost time and in his first two runs at Plumpton and Wetherby, which he both won easily, he at least was setting himself up for a real crack at the Arkle.
Connections dream of winning any race at the Festival – he’s also in the JLT – were (potentially) left in tatters last time out however, when L’Ami Serge was beaten at odds of 1/5.
Jumping left at some of his obstacles, a trait he had shown in his previous starts, he never looked comfortable and made mistakes. Not only did his jumping let him down, but he appeared to hang up the straight and finished a very tired horse, suggesting all was not right.
With him stepping up in grade and more than likely going to tackle the biggest chase field he has ever encountered, this wasn’t a good prep run and questions must now be asked of him.
Few questions can be asked of Sizing John in comparison and it’s somewhat of a surprise to see this horse as big as 14/1 in the betting. Much of that, potentially, is down to connections holding the option of running him in the JLT Novices’ Chase on the Thursday.
Henry De Bromhead’s horse is still entered in both races, but many public discussions have taken place with various people in the racing media and it does sound like the Arkle is the race they are targeting.
In some ways, it’s strange to come to the Arkle given the four encounters they’ve previously had with the race-favourite Douvan has seen an aggregate beating of 34 ½ lengths. However, the old racing adage says “never be afraid of one horse” and to be fair, take out the favourite, and we have an extremely open contest.
In terms of the horse himself, Sizing John is a classy animal that was born to jump fences. With that in mind, it was promising to see the son of Midnight Legend compete to such a high level as a novice hurdler. He was a Grade 1 winner and also finished third in last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
His chasing career hasn’t seen him reach the same heights he did over hurdles, yet, but it’s comforting to see him look a natural over the larger obstacles. At Punchestown he kicked off his new career in style by winning over 7 lengths with his ears pricked.
He showed himself to be a good, accurate and intelligent jumper on debut, but it was even better to see him bolder at his obstacles next time out, again at Punchestown, when winning a Grade 2 by 8 lengths.
His perfect record over fences would be taken by Douvan on his next start however, and where Sizing John is concerned, that’s probably his biggest obstacle in winning an Arkle, Douvan.
Not many of those to the fore in the Arkle market can boast an unblemished record over fences coming into the race – Douvan aside – but Garde La Victoire can. A classy hurdler last season, the son of Kapgarde managed to bag the Greatwood Hurdle in the first-half of the campaign.
Having such class over hurdles despite him looking every inch a chaser is a trend that holds up well with horses tackling fences. Philip Hobbs’s inmate is quite a big and robust animal so he interested more than most coming into this season.
He started his campaign off in excellent style despite his caveman-like ability to race keenly. He’s a horse that races with real zest and despite getting older it’s a trait connections haven’t been able to fully curb.
While not ideal, on debut it didn’t stop him running out a nice 7 lengths winner from Bristol De Mai, a horse who has since significantly franked the form. Jumping wise, considering it was his first start over fences, he was fine although quite low at some and landed steeply at others.
Grade 2 company beckoned next at Cheltenham in the November Novices’ Chase where he got vital course and distance experience. While again he jumped fine, there were signs it could go wrong at any minute, but he’d still win by 2 ½ lengths, all out.
His Cheltenham Festival prep came at Ludlow in a poorly contested four-runner event on heavy ground, Garde La Victoire won at a price of 1-6, but again his jumping didn’t totally convince. The soft conditions wouldn’t have suited him, however.
Best of the Rest
With injuries to some of the top contenders in the run up to the Arkle, and other entries looking to go elsewhere, The Game Changer was a little unlucky not to make the main section.
That’s maybe a little harsh – giving him stronger consideration due to dropouts – as he is a classy type, but he’s a horse that has been called a few names in the past, people questioning his resolution off the bridle.
That was possibly fair, but when you look at this 7-year-old and how big he is, maybe he’s just needed time to strengthen up and mature. It does look like Gordon Elliott’s charge is becoming the finished article and considering how well he travels and jumps he is sure to be in the mix for the places. Good ground is key, however.
Arzal, despite not having the natural size and scope for fences, has been admirable this season. He has done nothing but improve for the Harry Whittingham team and competed against the best that Great Britain has to offer.
Jumping isn’t easy for him however, and that could be his undoing in a race as competitive as the Arkle. There is a chance he’ll skip Cheltenham and go to Aintree and that looks a much better option.
Alisier D’Irlande is another Henry De Bromhead horse to note in this race. A horse who likes to get on with things, this lightly-raced son of Kapgarde might be biting off more than he can chew coming here on the back of just 6-lifetime starts.
In a race that may cut-up quite badly, 40/1 about him is quite a big price – he is sure to go off shorter, but despite the mouth-watering odds available, he is best left.
The BetBright Verdict
A race that revolves around another Willie Mullins hotpot, Douvan is arguably the most likely winner of the entire Festival. W
hile it will pain plenty to see him go off at 1/3 and so temper the Arkle as a betting contest, this is certainly one race that will be worth viewing. We could see a potential superstar unleash himself on the grandest stage of all, don’t miss it.
We obviously have to try and find a horse to make the frame at an each-way price and with that being the case Vaniteux is not worth considering at this time. He deserves to be second-favourite as he is a classy horse who jumps and travels quite well, but he may not be a whole lot shorter on he day.
One off-putting aspect, is he has been getting weight in his last two starts and lost one of those. The other, at Doncaster, he really had to win given the race conditions especially when you consider the favourite (Shaneshill) underperformed. The other slight worry we have is if Cheltenham suits him, he may be the type of horse that likes a flat track.
Arzal may not come here and is worth taking on as he doesn’t quite look good enough either, the latter sentiment we’d also echo about Alisier D’Irlande meaning the quartet of Garde La Victoire, L’Ami Serge, Sizing John, and The Game Changer are the ones to concentrate on.
L’Ami Serge is really hard to recommend on the back of a deplorable effort last time out. There’s also a chance he may run in the JLT Novices’ Chase. He’s an easy duck at this stage.
Garde La Victoire is a horse that possesses a huge engine. Given how keen he can be, it’s quietly taking that he still has the raw ability to win races. Cheltenham is one arena where he should get a strong pace to chase and that will be a big help to him.
However, a potential breakneck gallop also means there will be extra pressure put on his jumping and we are not sure he’ll be up to that test. If he copes with it all he’s a big players, but the evidence is not convincing.
This means we are left with Sizing John and The Game Changer, two horses that are built for jumping fences. There is no point beating about the bush here, SIZING JOHN is a horse that has achieved more in his career and given both are similar prices, he’ll have to get the nod.
To be fair to The Game Changer, he has probably got the stronger form over fences, but Sizing John, you get the feeling, has more to offer. Henry De Bromhead’s charge does a lot right, he travels nicely and jumps well.
On better ground, there is surely more to come and with him having vital Festival form already in the book, he can hopefully run a big race for us.
1.5pts each-way Sizing John @14/1
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.