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Two-mile to 2m4f Chasers
Didn’t see that coming. The formerly-imperious Douvan, unbeaten in everything he’d raced in since joining Willie Mullins, messed up at several fences prior to weakening out of contention in the 2017 Queen Mother Champion Chase – however, the 2018 renewal still had a very short-priced favourite over the Summer in Altior, the latest Arkle winner available at 13/8 in August, and we continue the trend of the build-up to the two-mile Champion Chase revolving around only one or two horses, as if there’s no point in anyone else turning up.
When horses this good go wrong, sometimes they come back – sometimes they don’t. Many will remember Remittance Man, a former Queen Mother-winner who looked as though he’d come back as good as before in the now-defunct Emblem Chase at Kempton in 1994, fell in that year’s Queen Mother, blew out completely in the Melling Chase, had another chunk of time off, weakened a mile out in a handicap chase at Sandown and was retired. First impressions can be deceptive, and none more so than in the case of racehorses who don’t post high-class form on paper, but look top class to the naked eye when they run.
Remittance Man wasn’t making a comeback, he was doing an impression. That’s where Douvan will be if he makes the track in 2017/18. Nobody will be good enough, or at least should be good enough, to serve it up to him in any conditions chase - regardless of trip - in Ireland, but if he wins by only half a length all out, rather than ten lengths on the bridle, then there’s still an issue.
Would he be able to get near Altior anyway? Social media did its thing in the aftermath of the Celebration Chase at Sandown. The widely-shared Racing Post text commentary on Altior’s win in the race, which was cynical and out of order, at least illustrated the position going in to the Summer. It was a straight and fair fight between Altior and Special Tiara, chief beneficiary of Douvan’s hopefully-temporary demise, and the horse seen by the majority as the two-mile Champion elect decisively beat the current two-mile Champion.
The glimmer of hope that connections of other potential Queen Mother candidates have, comes in the form of the manner of Altior’s win in the Arkle. Many were expecting an afternoon stroll round Cheltenham for Nicky Henderson’s newest stable star, but that’s not what happened. It could have gone either way when Charbel fell at the second last, Altior off the bit and ridden, but he was left clear of Cloudy Dream up the hill. Charbel is a tricky customer and no strong traveller – he’s usually one of the first to come under a ride, and probably lacks the necessary pace for the Queen Mother; he’s likely to end up in the Ryanair Chase in 2018.
The good things about any race with Special Tiara in it are that you know where the pace is coming from, if your fancy needs a strong pace; and that he’s exhilarating to watch, like all super-jumping two-mile chasers in the Tingle Creek-mould that have gone before. He’ll be 11 next March, but so was Moscow Flyer when he won his second Queen Mother in 2005.
It’s always potentially revealing when the younger up-and-comers meet the established stars at the top of the tree, as happened in the latest Celebration Chase, and Altior’s potential was duly revealed. On the Sandown form Altior is the superior horse, but form doesn’t always work out at Cheltenham, as Douvan-backers will tell you. I for one will have his Arkle performance in my mind in March.
Special Tiara always gives his all, and only held on by a head from Fox Norton in a fine finish up the Cheltenham hill in the Queen Mother. The runner-up, who was purchased by the Ann & Alan Potts Partnership after leaving a field of two-mile handicappers behind at Cheltenham on his reappearance in October 2016 on what turned out to be his final run for previous trainer Neil Mulholland, proved a money-spinner for his new connections. Now in the care of Colin Tizzard, he stepped up to two and a half miles to win the Melling Chase at Aintree decisively, before dropping back to the minimum trip to beat Ryanair winner Un De Sceaux in the BoyleSports Champion Chase at the Punchestown Festival.
Breeding says that Fox Norton won’t stay longer trips, but he’s outstayed his pedigree already by winning over two and a half miles. Connections want to run him in the King George, but come March we’re more likely to see Fox Norton in the Ryanair Chase in 2018 rather than the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The next Ryanair could be a competitive heat. Throw in Fox Norton and Cloudy Dream; the 2017 winner Un De Sceaux, whose connections will surely stick to what they know works; Disko, who might make up into a high-class three-mile chaser this season, but if not will most likely stay around two and a half; Yorkhill, the most-hyped jump horse in Ireland right now; and Road To Respect, impressive winner of the Plate (ex-Mildmay Of Flete) at the latest Festival, who then improved by as much as a stone to beat Yorkhill at Fairyhouse over Easter.
Road To Respect has been his own advert and I’m looking forward to seeing him again. I think he’s a strong contender for the Ryanair. But where will Yorkhill end up? Well I’m going to make a call here. Lots of racing media-folk think Yorkhill is headed for the Cheltenham Gold Cup. What races have they been watching?
Get hold of the videos of his races and watch him. He’s a free-going type, one who seems to be becoming more of a headcase with age, rather than settling down. When he won the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree – and everyone was in agreement – he did everything wrong, and still won. Pulling hard, not jumping well, all over the place. Now that he’s chasing he still goes keenly, though not as badly as he did at Aintree in 2016, and jumps to his left. Yorkhill is not crying out for further than two and a half miles. Quite the opposite. I want to see Yorkhill in the Queen Mother Champion Chase – but a few others clearly do too, as the biggest price for him in the two-mile championship during August was 10/1.
So Willie Mullins has got Yorkhill and Un De Sceaux as Ryanair candidates – I know we shouldn’t second-guess, but we all think we know better don’t we? – and nothing for the Queen Mother, unless Douvan comes back. Well chances are that won’t be the case. Great Field, the barnstorming, sometimes slipshod-jumping front runner, gave jockey Jody McGarvey several anxious moments last season, but always stayed up, and beat Ordinary World by 11 lengths in the Ryanair Novice at the Punchestown Festival. On paper this has him no more than 10 lbs shy of Altior's Cheltenham-form. Imagine him taking on Special Tiara round Cheltenham – no quarter will be given in the first mile. Odds of 12/1 might tempt a few for this JP McManus-owned horse, whose only visit to the Festival to date saw him pulled up in the 2016 County Hurdle. He’s unbeaten over fences, but Cheltenham might find out this iffy conveyance.
Mullins might also have Min back in 2018. The high-class French import was two from two over fences before injury intervened after he’d won at Leopardstown on Boxing Day, and don’t let it be forgotten that he started favourite to beat Altior in the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle – now they’re very much the other way round in the ante-post Queen Mother market.
This time last year I was quite keen on Ar Mad for the Ryanair Chase, but Gary Moore’s star ended up being another on the easy list. If he makes it back to the track, as with Douvan we need to see if he retains all his ability and enthusiasm – but if he is as good as before he remains one who’ll be better suited to the Ryanair, his Queen Mother-odds of 25/1 on the skinny side. Towards the other end of England from the Sussex-based Ar Mad, Malcolm Jefferson’s Cloudy Dream could get in the Ryanair mix too, the Arkle/Manifesto runner-up – who took the Future Champions’ Novice at Ayr and is better over two and a half miles than shorter – already pushing the 160s and unexposed; so a realistic hope for Malton.
However, is 13/8 about Altior a big price for the Queen Mother? No way, not even if you’re a punter who likes favourites.
If the 2018 Queen Mother Champion Chase was tomorrow, who are the first four?
If the 2018 Ryanair Chase was tomorrow, who are the first four?
Un De Sceaux
Road To Respect
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