Cheltenham Festival 2015 – CHAMPION CHASE PREVIEW


Viking Flagship…  One Man…  Edredon Bleu…  Flagship Uberalles…  Moscow Flyer…  Azertyioup…  Voy Por Ustedes…  Sizing Europe…  Master Minded. For jumps racing fans of the modern era, the names of these previous winners of the Champion Chase should evoke a response of salivation similar to that of a Pavlovian dog. Only the Cheltenham Gold Cup can boast a roll of honour to rival the Champion Chase and this is why the race has long captured the imagination of the British public. There is no hiding place in a Champion Chase and no lucky winners. To become a Champion you must be a high class horse with lots of speed and fantastic jumping ability. To coin a phrase, form is temporary; class is permanent. The Champion Chase bears this statement out like no other and this is evidenced by the roll of high class winners mentioned above. The great race takes place on the Day 2 of the Cheltenham Festival and there looks sure to be some frenetic 2015 Cheltenham Ladies Day betting – click here to get best odds guaranteed on the feature race as well as the Neptune Investment Novices Hurdle and RSA Novices Chase. To read a preview of the latter from Oliver Wagner, please sign up as a Community Member.

In order to finds this year’s winner let us first start by looking at some trends from previous seasons:

  1. Ten of the last fourteen winners had run in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown
  2. Fourteen of the last fifteen Arkle Trophy winners to run in this race the following year have all been placed at worst (Simonsig was injured in 2014)
  3. Twelve of the last thirteen winners were officially rated 160 or higher and won at least one Grade 1 race
  4. 32 of the last 33 winners had an SP of no more than 11/1

The Tingle Creek at Sandown has long been one of the key trials for the Champion Chase and the stats support this with 10 of the last 14 winners having run in the race. This year’s Tingle Creek saw Dodging Bullets step up markedly on his achievements the previous season, when running out a comfortable winner from solid benchmark Somersby on soft ground. Dodging Bullets travelled well throughout and picked up well after jumping the last to settle the race in determined fashion. He then appeared to step up again on that performance when lowering the colours of market leader Sprinter Sacre in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, once again on soft ground. It is clear that he is an improved horse this season, but whether he is this year’s Champion Chaser is open to some debate. For whatever reason I cannot visualise him winning the Champion Chase and find myself trying to pick holes in his form.

His record going left handed would be a slight concern for me having won only 3 races from 11 starts over jumps going that way round. However, all three of these wins were at Cheltenham, where he has recorded 3 wins from 7 starts. Much more of a concern for me would be the way in which he progresses through the season. Dodging Bullets has never won a race in the spring and his most recent win at Ascot on 17th January was the latest in the season the he has triumphed over jumps. He demonstrated this palpably last season when he recorded impressive victories in his first 3 starts, before being narrowly beaten at Newbury by Module in early Febraury;  comfortably brushed aside in an average Arkle in March at the festival and then when finishing last of 5 finishers beaten a long way at Aintree. That is a very worrying profile for me and for those advocating that he looks an each way bet to nothing given his recent performances, I would have a rethink. I believe that we saw Dodging Bullets at his very very best at Ascot last time and I simply cannot see him repeating the same level of form going left handed again in the spring. He simply isn’t for me.

Conversely, Champagne Fever has demonstrated a very high level of form in the spring, having won Grade One races at both the Cheltenham and Punchestown festivals in recent years. He absolutely bolted up on his re-appearance in the Clonmel Oil Chase in November, before running a decent race in the King George, having raced prominently and jumped extremely well, before ultimately not quite getting home. Although he was beaten just over 10 lengths that day he demonstrated real class in his jumping and his attitude. Much like with Dynaste, the King George appeared to be a fact finding mission and the only sensible conclusion was to step back in trip, which he did when falling at the last at Thurles when alongside the smart Don Cossack. The Ryanair seemed to me to be the most plausible option at the festival, but connections rightly perceive the Champion Chase to be wide open, so why not have a go, particularly when your horse has demonstrated such a high level of form over 2 miles at previous festivals. The question is does he have the gears of a Champion Chaser. Is he a Moscow Flyer or a Sprinter Sacre? The answer for me is no. Whilst he did beat Jezki when winning the Champion Bumper and My Tent or Yours when winning the Supreme Novices, those races are a very different test to that of a Champion Chase. I firmly believe that he is a two and a half miler and lacks the explosive pace of a Champion Chaser. However, with course form and stamina assured, he for me is the each way bet in the race given the likely strong pace if the likes of Special Tiara and Uxizandre take their place alongside Champagne Fever in front rank. I would much rather be with him than Dodging Bullets.

So we are heading in the right direction in terms of finding our Champion Chaser 2015 and now our attentions turn to last year’s champion Sire De Grugy. I must make a point of saying that my judgement may be somewhat clouded with respect to Sire De Grugy as he let me down for a huge treble when beaten in the Schloer Chase at the November meeting in 2013. He landed 3 lengths clear over the last before allowing the enigmatic Kid Cassidy to go past him like a parked car up the hill. That was his only defeat in his last 9 starts (typically for me) and it will come as no surprise to readers that I didn’t back him in last year’s Champion Chase for that reason.

Putting that defeat aside, Sire De Grugy does bring a very high level of form to the table, including victory in last year’s race, following on from majestic performances in both the Tingle Creek and Clarence House Chase. However, he has not been seen on a racecourse this season and that has to be of major concern. He has won twice when fresh in the past but not in this grade. It would be some training performance if he were to be delivered in peak condition in March and be good enough to beat a much stronger field than last year. Putting aside question marks regarding his fitness and well-being it is the latter point which provides the stronger repellent to his chances for me. This year there are some very credible opponents to get the better of and given that I didn’t attend the wedding last year when all he had to beat was an ageing Somersby, I will be damned if I will be attending the funeral this year, with the likes of Sprinter Sacre, Dodging Bullets and Champagne Fever to beat.

Of the outside chances for this year’s Champion Chase, I wouldn’t look any further down the betting than Al Ferof and Uxizandre at 11/1 and 16/1 respectively. The remaining horses in my opinion lack the class for a race of this magnitude and with many of them their participation is not assured. Al Ferof would have some sort of each-way chance in a strongly run Champion Chase on soft ground having been impressive on his seasonal re-appearance at Ascot, before running a nice race in the King George. However, he would certainly lack the gears on top of the ground as he showed in the Ryanair in 2013 when he was bitterly disappointing. I think connections will keep his options open until very late in the day when we have more of an idea of the ground. Uxizandre does have some gears but he is likely to be taken on for the lead by horses with much more class in the form of Champagne Fever and Special Tiara. He has more scope than most but I couldn’t see having the class to be involved in the finish.

Having effectively ruled out the majority of the field, it will come as no surprise that my proposed Champion Chaser for 2015 is Sprinter Sacre. Having already run through the qualities of a Champion Chaser earlier in this column, it is clear that the Sprinter Sacre of old had all these qualities in abundance. His problems have been well advertised and many of his critics will be keen to make reference to an ‘underwhelming’ performance in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot when beaten fair and square by Dodging Bullets. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Sprinter Sacre travelled very well for most of the race. Whilst his jumping wasn’t as exuberant as we have come to expect, he appeared to be travelling much the best as the race began to get serious, before producing a relatively weak finish. I believe there was a lot to like about the performance. He showed that he still has the class to tank his way through a top class race and he was only outdone by a horse at the peak of his powers, with several previous runs under his belt and who produced the performance of his life.

We have already discussed the way in which the form of Dodging Bullets is likely to regress come the spring and it is also likely that the Champion Chase will be run on much better ground, which will play to the strengths of Sprinter Sacre. So with better ground, increased fitness and the full commitment of jockey Barry Geraghty all but assured at Cheltenham, I have every confidence that Sprinter Sacre will be crowned champion again. He will be ridden much more positively at Cheltenham than he was at Ascot and will be asked for 100% effort. The race also looks likely to be run to suit with a strong pace almost assured. This will bring class to the fore and will help to identify this year’s extraordinary horse. As a wise man once said, the difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little ‘extra’.  In respect of a Champion Chaser, that little extra is the high cruising speed, the spectacular jumping, the standout physical capability to be set apart from your rivals. I believe that Sprinter Sacre can still be extraordinary and he wouldn’t even have to be to win. At the current odds of 3/1 my advice is simple: Reminisce, back him and BELIEVE. Cheltenham is the place where magic happens; particularly in the Champion Chase.

3pts win SPRINTER SACRE at 3/1 (Betway, 11/4 General)