Champion Chase – The Altior Conundrum
If you had to back the favourite for one of the four championship races at the Cheltenham Festival now, which would it be?
I would hazard a guess that for many, the answer would be Chacun Pour Soi who is now a top price 6/4 for the Queen Mother Champion Chase following his bloodless success in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown.
A six-and-a-half length defeat of Notebook looks much stronger form than Politologue’s Tingle Creek win so, although Chacun Pour Soi has yet to experience the undulations of Cheltenham, from a form perspective it all looks fairly straightforward.
But the elephant in the Champion Chase room is Altior. A heavy defeat by 152-rated rival in the Wayward Lad at Kempton hardly bodes well for Altior, especially as he is about to turn 11, but the fact that he subsequently scoped dirty casts the performance in a completely different light.
Sure, it’s impossible to know to what extent Altior was unable to perform to his best but I can’t be the only one out there that thinks his 12/1 Champion Chase quote is an overreaction? It’s not as if there weren’t positives in his run – he may not have jumped as fluently as he can but he stuck to his task well and let’s not forget this was his first race since February.
This game is all about finding value and, while it is entirely possible that he is past his best, one thing is for sure – if Altior gets to Cheltenham and the stable vibes are good then there is no way he will go off a 12/1 chance.
Champion Hurdle – Epatante No Certainty
Of all the big races at Cheltenham this year, the Champion Hurdle is the one that makes least appeal from an ante-post perspective and the foremost reason is that a peak-form Epatante, in receipt of 7lb from her male counterparts, would be almost impossible to beat.
Despite her costly Kempton defeat, she actually shortened in ante-post lists on Tuesday on the back of the Matheson Hurdle result, where the likes of Saint Roi and Abacadabras fluffed their lines.
The 9/4 available about Epatante could easily look huge come the day but her Boxing Day defeat merely highlighted that she is far from bombproof and there are surely better value options out there.
Sharjah is the obvious port of call having looked as good as ever at Leopardstown despite conditions being softer than he probably wants but he couldn’t live with Epatante up the Cheltenham hill in March and his price has gone now - the top-price 8/1 looks about right at this stage.
Of the beaten horses, the one that can be forgiven is Abacadabras because he was subsequently found to have mucus on his lungs. The 16/1 about last year’s Supreme runner-up might tempt a few in given he’ll be much better suited by a stronger run contest.
If conditions at Cheltenham looked set to be on the testing side, then there might be a temptation to run Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle and she would be the one I would be looking at once we start to see layers going NRNB (non-runner no bet) but at this stage the Champion Hurdle is a tough heat to solve.
Gold Cup – Reigning Champion Holds Key
Henry de Bromhead’s prospects of winning a first Gold Cup appear to have increased a good deal over the last few days despite Minella Indo’s early fall in the Savills Chase.
Stablemate A Plus Tard picked up the mantle by storming home to collar Kemboy late on and lay to rest any doubts about his stamina for staying trips at the top level.
A Plus Tard is actually a year younger than Minella Indo and would likely be the youngest horse to line up in the Gold Cup should connections decide to now go down that route rather than having another tilt at winning the Ryanair Chase.
Is he good enough to win a Gold Cup? I don’t know, he got beat in a Ryanair after all, but you have to say that this performance puts him firmly in the mix and further progress is still very much a possibility given his age.
As for Minella Indo, he remains a horse of major potential in the division despite his early departure, although the same could be said about his RSA Chase conqueror Champ.
Champ’s stablemate Santini hardly enhanced his Gold Cup claims in the King George (not my finest tipping hour) but the steady gallop there wouldn’t have played to his strengths, especially on that flat track.
We know Santini is better suited by the demands of Prestbury Park, especially if they get some rain, and he remains firmly in the mix for March.
However, we haven’t seen anything so far that is going to overly concern connections of reigning champ Al Boum Photo who is set to make his reappearance at Tramore on New Year’s Day. If all is well with him heading into the festival then he’s going to be a tough nut to crack.
Stayers’ Hurdle – Don’t Write Off Irish Challengers
If there is one Grade 1 race at Leopardstown this week that shouldn’t be taken literally then it has to be the Christmas Hurdle on Monday.
All credit to Johnathan Moore who controlled the race to perfection from the front on Flooring Porter but none of those in behind were seen to best effect and personally I thought The Storyteller ran a blinder from well off the pace.
It’s less easy to be positive about Sire Du Berlais who just didn’t show the same spark as he has been doing but we know he tends to really come to life in the spring and it will take a lot more than the Leopardstown defeat to convince me that both Sire Du Berlais and The Storyteller, first and second in last season’s much-vaunted Pertemps Final, are anything other than huge players come March.
Both still make a good deal more appeal than last year’s Stayers’ Hurdle runner-up Ronald Pump, and both remain better value in ante-post lists than the big two British challengers, Thyme Hill and Paisley Park.
The potential fly in the ointment in this division is Benie Des Dieux who has yet to be seen so far this season. She has a number of festival options, including the new mares’ chase, but the Mullins camp have been keeping their cards fairly close to their chest regarding her likely target.