Look at your clock and rejoice. There is less than a month until the most important week in the calendar – the Cheltenham Festival 2018. Yes, those four days are less than four weeks away and as part of the build-up to the epic festival it’s time to shine a light upon a race that hasn’t had the microscope treatment here – the Betway Champion Chase.
Two deeply impressive performances over the past month has injected a huge amount of potential into the race, and also ignited a rivalry which is by no means unfinished – that of Altior v Min. Altior, so deeply impressive when trashing Min in the Supreme Novice’s Hurdle two years ago, didn’t get a chance to have the rematch that so many had hoped for with the Irish raider when he suffered and injury last year, and in his absence, belted older opposition in the Game Spirit before then winning the Arkle, putting away the penalty kick that he was given by the fall of Charbel.
Some suggested that he wasn’t at his best that day, and his wide margin win in the Celebration Chase afterwards – arguably a more impressive performance – suggested that could have been the case, although there was no doubting for many that he was the best 2-mile chaser in training.
One had expected to see him more than once this season, but fortune was not kind to Nicky Henderson, who found out that Altior had made “a whistling noise” during his work in the lead up to the Tingle Creek, for which he had been a hot favourite – it turned out that he needed a wind op. So away he went, with the Game Spirit the one chance he would have to run before the Cheltenham Festival. Thankfully he made it, and as you can recall, he oozed class in tracking Politologue and then moving past him in a manner of seconds, with Nico de Boinville having an easier time on him than he did for any of his wins last year as he won by four lengths on the bridle.
If that’s what he can produce after such a long time off, imagine what he could produce with improvement – although there is one major caveat. Firstly, the dreaded bounce factor. This is shown by the small but incredibly eye catching (or worrying if, like me, you are a fan of the horse) sample size with over 30 horses having run at the Cheltenham Festival for the second time in a season with 600-day breaks – producing only one winner. That said, none were Altior. There are always different interpretations of statistics which result in many websites and analysts posting tips throughout the Cheltenham Festival 2018.
Min, who met Altior two seasons ago in the Supreme, is accepted not to have run to his best that day and was making into a fine novice chaser before injury intervened and robbed us of a rematch last year. Previously a deeply impressive winner of the Racing Post Novice Chase, his knee injury ruled him out of the spring before a visually impressive return at Gowran over 2m4f. He didn’t have much of a workout there – he did go off a 1/9 shot – but the style enthralled many and it was no surprise that he was sent off long odds on to take the Dial-A-Bet Chase.
However, he found things much tougher there and at many points looked to be struggling against Simply Ned through the straight before he drifted into the general line of Nicky Richards’ horse, and the disqualification that he suffered was deserved. However, that was arguably his first real race since last Christmas and he was a different horse when sitting off the lightning quick gallop in the Dublin Chase.
Special Tiara – the winner of this last year – set a terrific pace and jumped with the verve he’d last showed in March, stringing the field out by 15 lengths after the first fence and refusing to relent until well after the last, By tat time, Min, who was clearly in his element, was tracking him and ready to go and win the race in style, which he did, and announce himself as a huge player. He duly won by seven lengths and is sure to go well at the Festival, but it would not be a surprise if Special Tiara was able to improve on that effort.
Whilst he is now 11, it must be remembered that the better the ground, the better Special Tiara is, and should we get the same surface as last year, then he can surely be expected to go well again. He should improve physically too – he did not get a full runout in the Desert Orchid Chase and had only appeared in the Shloer Chase before that, his seasonal reappearance. He might be more restrained at the Festival but set a strong pace when outlasting his opposition last year and with his target absolutely confirmed, appeals as being overpriced at 16/1.
It will be a surprise to many that I have not mentioned Douvan, odds on for this race last year and serenely unbeaten before that, until now. However, at the time of writing, it is not a certainty that he will run in the Red Mills Chase at the weekend, and should he win that then the Ryanair begins to look the stronger option for him anyway.
Politologue had no answer to Altior in the Game Spirit but might not be the worst each/way option given that he was not going to have been at 100% either (due to a combination of race targeting and a January flu jab) and his extra stamina makes him an attractive choice here. He hasn’t put a foot wrong in jumping terms all season, especially in the Tingle Creek when he got the better of Fox Norton, and he can run well.
Un De Secaux is likelier to defend his title in the Ryanair, unless there was a deluge of rain. Great Field is an incredibly exciting horse, but his problems have robbed him of a clean crack at the race and he is next season’s horse. Last season’s neck second Fox Norton was out jumped when Politologue beat him in the Tingle Creek, and it could be that he’s happier at the Ryanair trip – he certainly looked it when he was a super winner of the Melling Chase at Aintree last season. Ar Mad was third in that race, but beaten fair and square whilst he’s better going right handed. Charbel, fourth there, doesn’t look good enough to run the finish out of a field this good. Yorkhill won’t be running here following his disappointing showing at Leopardstown, and neither will Top Notch unless the ground becomes seriously testing.
1 pt each/way Special Tiara, Champion Chase (16/1 general)