Precarious Sprintre Sacre leads the betting for the Queen Mother Champion Chase
The first in our series of Ante-Post betting previews for the 2015 Cheltenham Festival, we look ahead at the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Ladies Day, March 11th.
An improved format on the 3-part format featured in 2014, we’ve now amalgamated the Main Contenders, Chasing Pack and Best of the Rest features into one more easily-digestible mega-post.
We hope you enjoy reading as much as our horse racing expert has enjoyed compiling them!
Thirty-three horses have been entered for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Fourteen of those are Irish-based, with Great Britain making up the remainder.
There was no French entry this year, but the door still remains open for owners if they want to supplement later in the calendar.
The last four winners of this race have been entered – starting from 2011; Sizing Europe, Finian’s Rainbow, Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy. The former pair are now 13 and 12, respectably meaning they’ll have to defy an age stat of over 30 years since the last winner aged 12 plus; Skymas (1977).
The mercurial Sprinter Sacre currently heads the market and is a best price 2/1 shot. That may look big come March if Nicky Henderson’s stable star can bounce back to his brilliant best. The Sprinter Sacre that won the 2012 Champion Chase would simply outclass this field. The question is, however, is the old Sprinter Sacre back?
The nine-year-old missed last season’s Cheltenham Festival; his trainer stating “he is not showing the same brilliance as he did last season”.
The son of Network was beaten for the first time over fences in the Desert Orchid Chase last season. Pulled-up by Barry Geraghty an irregular heartbeat was later found. The seven time Grade 1 winner hasn’t been seen in a race since.
And where the objective of this preview lies; that is the problem – will we see Sprinter Sacre run at Cheltenham in 2015?
After Nicky Henderson’s tennis like battle with the media since December 2013, and rumour after rumour about the horse’s wellbeing, the latest vibes are positive. The problem is, do we go on vibes or what we see on the racetrack? The latter is always best.
A similar scenario also surrounds the defending champion Sire De Grugy who hasn’t been seen since winning the Celebration Chase in April of 2014. In Sprinter Sacre’s absence, Gary Moore’s charge made hay last season.
The son of My Risk won four Grade 1s including the prestigious Tingle Creek and Queen Mother Champion Chase, culminating in one of the 2013/14 National Hunt success stories.
This campaign has been a far cry from the last one, however, due to injury. By this time last season (give or take a couple days) Sire De Grugy had run five times, winning four. His only loss came to the quirky but talented Kid Cassidy whom he was trying to give ten pounds.
Due to a hip injury this season hasn’t gone as smooth as connections would’ve liked. The problem incurred – heat on his hip – was not as serious as Sprinter Sacre’s problem, but him not seeing the racetrack yet is less than ideal. Like the favourite, we are currently playing a guessing game on his wellbeing.
One horse that has at least shown some winning form this season is Al Ferof. Paul Nicholls’s grey is a general 8/1 shot for the race after a winning reappearance at Ascot in the Amlin 1965 Chase. This run was followed up by a gallant third over three miles in the King George behind his stablemate Silviniaco Conti.
While a horse of some ability we’d have reservations about Al Ferof coping with the drop in trip. Dropping a full mile in distance on spring ground is a big ask of any horse in any grade and it remains to be seen if this son of Dom Alco could adjust to it at the highest level.
We’re not sure connections have found his ideal trip just yet and the Ryanair may prove to be a better option.
Sharing the third favourite spot with Al Ferof is another likeable grey, Champagne Fever. Willie Mullins’ charge was cruelly denied in last season’s Arkle Chase before going on to run his usual lifeless race at the Punchestown Festival.
His profile this season is similar to Al Ferof’s in he has had two runs; winning his first start nicely over an intermediate trip before running well in the King George. The tempo and pace of that Boxing Day event didn’t suit, though.
In the hands of Ruby Walsh, he was a little too keen and paid for his early exuberance late in the race; plugging on to be fourth.
Connections will surely drop the 2013 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner back in trip bringing the Ryanair and Champion Chase into perspective. The answer we don’t know just yet, is will they drop the eight-year-old a full eight furlongs in distance from the King George?
While Al Ferof hasn’t got the natural early pace to cope with such a demand, Champagne Fever has the natural pace, jumping fluency and ability to do so. He comes with risks given the nature of this blog, however, as we don’t know will he line-up here.
One horse that will go down the Champion Chase route is Dodging Bullets. A former flat-racer in Ireland, he has been a pretty consistent horse since his transition to the jumps game.
Paul Nicholls’s inmate has never been a sexy type, however, and has got plenty stick down through the years, but he’s paid his way season after season.
A three time Grade 2 winner he really announced himself when winning this season’s Grade 1 Tingle Creek at Sandown.
It may not have been the best running of the race, with a couple of horses under-performing, too, but the son of Dubawi won it well. He beat an aging Somersby, but done it nicely proving himself an ideal two mile chase candidate.
What makes Dodging Bullets so competitive in this division is his jumping. Still only seven-year-olds, he jumps like a seasoned pro. He’s quick, accurate and gets away from his obstacles well. Given the pace good championship races are run at, this trait will stand to him.
Given the trainer he represents and with him obviously improving Dodging Bullets is of interest to us; especially as, all being well, he will run in this race. The one worry is an ability to hold his form going into the spring. History suggests he can’t and that is a worry.
A horse that seemed to improve as the year went on last season was Uxizandre. Having started in two low grade Plumpton races he went on to flop at Warwick (hold-up tactics blamed) before his excellent second in the JLT Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
From here, the son of Fragrant Mix would go to Aintree for the Grade 1 Manifesto Novices’ Chase. The progression shown at Cheltenham continued and he ran out a sound winner from Oscar Whisky, who was running at his favoured course over his ideal distance. That form looks sound.
In the Old Roan Chase, this campaign started soundly. Although beaten 16 lengths by Wishful Thinking Alan King’s charge ran far better than the distance suggests; tiring late in the day against rivals who were in better shape. That run cleared the cobwebs for his Shloer Chase victory at the Cheltenham Open Meeting.
He beat a race fit Simply Ned and also held Dodging Bullets who was having his first run of the year. The latter has boosted the form while Simply Ned is a solid yardstick. From this effort JP McManus’s gelding would blot his copybook, however.
At Leopardstown in the Grade 1 Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase Uxizandre would finish a well-beaten eight of nine behind Twinlight. The soft going, awful weather conditions and over-aggressive ride didn’t show him at his best. He wasn’t even close to troubling the judge, however and that is a worry.
Another concern for us with a potential ante-post bet in mind is he may run in the Ryanair. His owner also has Mr Mole entered here, but he is not in the same class as Uxizandre.
If Nicky Henderson doesn’t manage to get Sprinter Sacre here he may have an able replacement in Captain Conan. Like Sprinter Sacre, however, he still has to prove his fitness having suffered an injury at last year’s Cheltenham Festival.
The son of Kingsala fractured his pelvis in two places in the 2014 Queen Mother Champion Chase. He was one horse fancied to put it up to Sire De Grugy on the day, but it was quite evident something was amiss given the early mistakes, and him never travelling. Eventually he was pulled-up.
The eight-year-old has yet to run this season, but connections have posted a number of positive bulletins about him in recent weeks. While that is good to hear we need to see it on the racetrack itself and like a few in this race that is the worry.
With that being said, though, he was a class horse not too long ago and if retaining that ability he is capable of running well here. He has the form to do so. The readily available 33/1 could look huge come the day – it’s an inviting price – especially if he runs well in the Game Spirit Chase.
Best of the Rest
Simply Ned is a consistent and improving horse that has done his connections proud this year. He’s entitled to take his chance here – on the back of the Shloer Chase run – but will surely find a few too good.
He can be a bit awkward at some obstacles, and on better ground running at championship pace; it could see him outclassed.
Henry De Bromhead’s Special Tiara looked in the form of his life when winning the Grade Two Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas.
He did get weight from Balder Succes (said to be Ryanair bound), however and may well be best of a flatter track. His trainer also has the legend that is Sizing Europe entered, but at the age of 13 is passed over.
Hidden Cyclone ran a fantastic race in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas considering the pace he set. Four times he’s finished second in Grade 1s, which is off-putting.
Even more off-putting, however is the fact it looks like he’ll run in the Ryanair; the race he was second in last year.
Willie Mullins’s Twinlight won that Leopardstown contest and did so in fine style, but race conditions there will most likely be a far cry from Cheltenham in March. He’s a talented but quirky horse with soft ground being key. It will hardly be soft enough come Cheltenham and with no Festival form is passed over.
Both Hinterland and Somersby are good horses on their day, but the former saves his best for Sandown while the latter is pushing on, quirky and seems to be better going right-handed.
The BetBright Verdict
This year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase revolves around the well-being of Sprinter Sacre, the highest rated horse in training.
If he bounces back to his best, regardless of the form of his rivals, he will win.
That is a big ‘if’, however, and given his lowly price of 2/1 coming off the back of a heart problem, it’s simply not a risk worth taking at this stage. His belated reappearance in the Clarence House Chase will tell us more.
Sire De Grugy, the defending champion, must also prove his well-being. Gary Moore’s stable star is twice the price of Sprinter Sacre and is returning from a less serious issue, but even those two positives are outweighed by the potential risk.
He managed to dominate an awful two mile division in Sprinter Sacre’s absence last year and with new horses to beat we’ll happily leave him aside at the price.
Over this trip and with the likelihood he may run elsewhere Al Ferof is easily passed over, too. There is little about him that suggests to us he is an out-and-out two mile chaser. The prospect of spring ground over this trip only adds to our doubts. He looks an awful price currently and is passed over.
The four horses we must split come in the shape of Captain Conan, Champagne Fever, Dodging Bullets and Uxizandre. Of the quartet, all being well, it looks like Captain Conan and Dodging Bullets are certain to run in this race. Champagne Fever we are a little unsure about, but his owner Rich Ricci is correctly leaning this way.
JP McManus has Mr Mole and Uxizandre entered here and while there is a fair gulf in class between the two we cannot be sure the Alan King horse will line-up on the Wednesday. He may take the Ryanair route and for that reason we’ll put him aside.
He is capable of running well here, though and if this were his number one target he may well have been the selection at his current price.
Judged on last season’s Arkle Novices’ Chase run Champagne Fever should be able to hold Dodging Bullets once more. The Paul Nicholls runner has looked an improved performer this season, though and his razor sharp jumping will stand to him.
However, there are two questions we have about the Ditcheat inmate. One; Is he as good a horse in the spring? Two; Is he better with significant cut in the ground?
On the evidence we’ve seen from Dodging Bullets over the last number of seasons, we’d have to say ‘no’ to both questions, and with that being the case we are out.
And so there were two; Captain Conan and Champagne Fever. Nearly everything about the pair is chalk and cheese at the moment.
The Seven Barrow’s inmate has yet to run this season, whereas Champagne Fever has shown his well-being. Captain Conan is a 33/1 shot. Champagne Fever is a 9/1 play. And just to top it off, Captain Conan is a bay and Champagne Fever is a grey.
Of the pair, there is no doubt about it CHAMPAGNE FEVER is the sounder option. Willie Mullins’s horse has shown himself to be in form this year, and arguably done so over unsuitable trips.
His attacking style of running leaves him a sitting duck in good races over two miles plus. The tempo just doesn’t suit given he can be a keen type and he tends to over race.
Over the minimum he has shown his best form and it’s hard to argue with his Cheltenham Festival form. The son of Stowaway has won a Cheltenham Champion Bumper, a high quality running of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and was a gutting wrenching second in last year’s Arkle.
Cheltenham in March brings out the best in him. His jumping can leave him down at times, but for the most part he is sound in this area. On the big day, at Cheltenham, it’s always stood up to the test.
At the prices we just can’t resist a bet on CAPTAIN CONAN. It’s a risk, but it seems a risk worth taking at 33/1. He is coming back from a pelvic injury, but in the greater scheme of horse injuries that isn’t too serious.
Vibes from the stable are still positive with his work said to be good. It wasn’t long ago he beat Sire De Grugy at Cheltenham and Nicky Henderson’s horse did run well at the 2013 Cheltenham Festival.
A nice comeback in the Game Spirit Chase could see his price tumble. There is no doubt in our mind that his trainer will have targeted getting him to Cheltenham in top form.
1pt win CHAMPAGNE FEVER @ 9/1
1pt each-way CAPTAIN CONAN @ 33/1