One glance at the Queen Mother Champion Chase betting tells you how wide open the two-mile chase division is at the moment but it might be a different story by the end of this weekend.
It’s a big weekend for the best of the speed chasers but we will need to see something special from either Altior at Sandown or Chacun Pour Soi in Ireland if we are going to get a definitive move at the head of ante-post Champion Chase lists.
At Sandown, all eyes will be on the mighty Altior who is a shade of odds-on to win a second Tingle Creek Chase.
It has not exactly been plain sailing with Altior in the last 12 months. There had been a growing clamour for connections to step Altior up in trip because for many, he had achieved all that he possibly could in what was, at the time, a fairly shallow two-mile division.
However, the decision to take on Cyrname over 2m5f at Ascot last season backfired badly and any aspirations that connections may have had about races like the King George VI Chase went up in smoke.
Despite the Ascot reversal, Altior looked much more like his old self at Newbury, where he made short work of reliable yardstick Sceau Royal, but that was the last time we saw him after a splint injury intervened with his Champion Chase preparations the following month.
Altior is now ten years old. Since the Tingle Creek’s inception in 1979, only one horse of Altior’s age has won the race - the great Moscow Flyer in 2004.
I’m not saying Altior can’t win on Saturday, far from it – indeed the fact that he had a light campaign in 2019 might actually work in his favour while his trainer has recently said that the horse is a lot further forward than he was for his return last year.
But at the end of the day, Altior has not had a race for ten months and we just don’t know what the horse is capable of now. The vibes from Seven Barrows have been particularly positive in the build-up and if he returns as good as ever then his opening price for this race will be made to look like an early Christmas present. There will certainly be no shortage of people queueing up on social media to tell us just that.
But for me, he has a bit to prove right now and I’m happy to let him win at that sort of price.
Side With John Hales’ Bold-Jumping Grey
So, if Altior isn’t a bet in the Tingle Creek, then what is?
The up-and-comers in the line-up are Greaneteen and Rouge Vif, but the former needs to take another big step forward on the numbers, while Rouge Vif needs the rain to stay away.
I’m struggling to see how Greaneteen, for all that he is very much on the up, can be a similar sort of price with most firms to stablemate Politologue who is proven at this level and the best-placed rating-wise to take advantage were Altior to underperform.
Lest we forget that Politologue is the reigning champion two-mile chaser. Sure, his task at Cheltenham was made easier by the absence of Altior and Chacun Pour Soi, not to mention the wretched performance of odds-on favourite Defi Du Seuil, but we are dealing with a three-time Grade 1-winner that is continually underestimated by the layers, and it’s not as if he doesn’t know how to win this race having held off an odds-on Fox Norton in 2017.
If all eight stand their ground, John Hales’ bold-jumping grey, who is only rated 2lb inferior to Altior by the BHA handicapper, looks a rock solid each-way play to land another big race for his master trainer in 2020.
Over To You, Chacun
And then we come to the lesser spotted Chacun Pour Soi who currently heads Champion Chase lists at around 4/1.
With the John Durkan Chase shaping up to be a real cracker of a renewal, it looks more likely that Rich Ricci’s talented but fragile eight-year-old will instead head to Cork for the Kerry Group Hilly Way Chase.
That Grade 2 contest will be no walkover either, but from this range it is almost certainly shaping up to be the less taxing option for Chacun Pour Soi, and it is also over his preferred trip, unlike the John Durkan.
You get the feeling with Chacun Pour Soi that this could be the season he shines on the biggest stage of all (yes, that is Cheltenham), but it is now down to the horse to go and do it. A sparkling return on Sunday would be the ideal platform from which to launch his Champion Chase and a potentially mouth-watering clash with Altior.
Don’t Be Surprised If Santini Is Turned Over On Return
Nicky Henderson has made no bones about the fact that this season is all about the now sponsor-less Gold Cup in March so I think it’s safe to assume that last year’s Gold Cup runner-up is not going to be anything like cherry ripe for his first assignment of the campaign.
Santini made relatively hard work of winning a much weaker contest on seasonal return 12 months ago and he’ll need to be a good deal sharper if he is going to deal with a race-fit Frodon and last year’s winner Native River.
Santini, who can race lazily (hence the application of cheekpieces), often looks quite one-paced so connections will surely be praying that Aintree gets at least some of the rain forecast to hit the track between now and Saturday, because he could be made to look extremely slow if the ground is no slower than the current good to soft.
Frodon, who is arguably the best jumper of a fence in training, looked as good as ever when giving weight and a beating to a decent field at Cheltenham on return. Paul Nicholls’ star has the advantage of a run under his belt and won’t mind which way the ground goes so he could have Santini in trouble a long way out.