Un De Sceaux put in a stunning performance at Leopardstown last weekend, proving to be far too good for both Clarcam and Gilgamboa. He was immediately cut to a short-priced favourite for the Arkle Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. The race was billed as a true test for Mullins’ chaser, a tough encounter that would prove just how good he really is. As it turned out, it appears he really is quite good. The time confirmed that the race was run at a decent clip. Un De Sceaux set the pace as always and was slick and measured over his fences. Clarcam was produced to challenge at the second last fence, but was swiftly swept aside. Ruby Walsh had a yawning 15 lengths to spare by the time they hit the line. He’s not a particularly big horse, but that appears to have little effect as he jumps effortlessly, seemingly without breaking stride. It was also impressive how he galloped relentlessly to the finish, never once looking like folding off the strong pace. It was a performance that is difficult to knock, but I will try my best to do so in an attempt to give realistic hope to the other contenders. It’s fair to say that the horse can only thrash the opponents set before him, but for me the quality of that opposition has to be questioned. This may seem a strange comment after Leopardstown, which saw him take on two highly thought of novice chasers. My problem is this. Clarcam is only a five-year-old and as such is still very much a raw individual at the embryonic stage of his career. He only achieved a mark of 140 over hurdles and that was gained in a particularly weak juvenile division. None of last year’s young hurdlers have progressed with the likes of Plinth and Tiger Roll absolutely thrashed in Grade 1 hurdles this winter. Gilgamboa also achieved a mark of 140 over hurdles and although he’d looked impressive so far over fences, his breeding suggests he will be better over further. He also appears to be ground dependant and was clearly outpaced on Sunday. In his previous run, Mullins’ exciting chaser had thrashed Smashing at Fairyhouse. Again it was a visually stunning performance, but once more he was beating a five-year-old who certainly needs a trip to be seen at his best. True the horse won well next time out, but in a very poor contest. Of course it may sound as if I’m desperately searching for reasons why this outstanding looking chaser could be beaten at Cheltenham. And it may well prove that he is by far the best two mile novice chaser around. But nothing is certain at the Cheltenham Festival and many a ‘sure thing’ has hit the buffers over the years. Indeed only three favourites have won the Arkle Chase since 2000 though Simonsig, Sprinter Sacre and Azertyuiop were the shortest priced at 8/15, 8/11 and 5/4 respectively. So who could possibly beat this latest short-priced cert? Or maybe the question should be; is there a better value bet in a race for novice chasers? Josses Hill appears to be the obvious place to start. Second in last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, he was always thought of as a top-class chaser in waiting. He is trained by Nicky Henderson who has won the Arkle on five occasions, most recently with Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig. The horse is also partnered by Barry Geraghty, who happens to be the most successful jockey in the race’s history with four wins to his name. Josses seasonal debut was delayed and he has only had two runs over fences to date. It’s fair to say that his jumping has been patchy and this will need to improve if he is to land a blow on Un De Sceaux at Cheltenham. But he is a huge stamp of a beast, who if in range turning for home is sure to charge up the famous hill. He is set to get further race experience before March and his odds of 9/1 seem fair. He looks a decent each-way proposition. Vibrato Valtat is likely to be Ditcheat’s main hope. It’s surprising that we have to go back to 2003 for the last Nicholls’ Arkle Chase success. Azertyuiop was guided home to victory by Ruby Walsh on that occasion. This latest contender appeared something of a monkey last season but has shown plenty of resolution in winning three of his four starts over fences this winter. He’s a strong traveller who’s pretty slick over his obstacles. Whether he has the class to win this is questionable, and a nagging doubt still remains over whether he would relish a battle up the Cheltenham hill. The famous silks of Mrs T P Radford were almost carried to victory in 2010 when Somersby just failed to overhaul Sizing Europe. This time round it’s Sgt Reckless who looks to go one place better for connections. He is another imposing horse that appears well suited to fences. One of the better novice hurdlers, he chased home Josses Hill at both Cheltenham and Aintree last season.His preparation for the Arkle in March has been rather unorthodox. Only once tried over fences, he then had an outing over hurdles and then a spin on the flat. He surely needs more practice if he is to beat the likes of Un De Sceaux, though Western Warhorse won last year’s renewal on just his second attempt over fences. I’ll mention just two more that have an each-way chance if making the start. Court Minstrel is as big as 40’s though is by no means a definite starter. He needs decent ground to have any chance and is thought by his trainer to prefer Aintree and Ayr. He has won at Cheltenham twice before though, one of those being impressively over fences back in October. He’s a classy type who often travels like a dream. Should the ground be suitable and should he take his chance he could certainly run into a place. Finally, a horse I’ve already backed at 33’s. John Ferguson’s Three Kingdoms was a whisker behind Vibrato Valtat at Kempton in December. He has since won at Doncaster and is proving to be a consistent performer. A son of Street Cry, I’m sure he’ll perform even better on the sounder surface that he’s likely to get at Cheltenham. He quickened clear of Thomas Crapper and Deep Trouble up Leicester’s hill in November. I fancy he could run a huge race at the festival. Of course they could all be chasing shadows on the ‘big day’. Willie Mullins came so close to winning his first Arkle Chase last year and he has another terrific chance this time round. But I’ll look for better value and hope for an upset. Should Un De Sceaux scorch the Cheltenham turf on his way to a stunning victory, I’ll happily cheer along with the masses. Truly great horses don’t come around that often. For more Cheltenham build-up, visit our Cheltenham Festival 2015 category.
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