This is a vintage renewal of the Queen Mother Champion Chase with three past winners taking on an impressive new talent in the two mile division (3.30pm Wednesday, Channel 4).
Un De Sceaux heads the betting market at 4/6 but it will be his first experience of a field of this depth and he is unlikely to get things his own way at the front.
Saddled by the masterful Willie Mullins, the eight-year-old Un De Sceaux has never been beaten when he has stayed on his feet. He took the Arkle here in style last year but he can be over ebullient and has twice tipped up on his seasonal debut.
He hit the deck in December at Leopardstown but it was back to business as usual when he won the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January, beating Sire De Grugy five lengths. Un De Sceaux paid the fences uncharacteristic respect and was relatively careful rather than reckless at them. If that approach continues he should stay upright if he copes with having company at the head of affairs.
The second favourite in the Champion Chase betting is Sprinter Sacre (5/1). This magnificent 10-year-old gelding had the commentators struggling for superlatives in his prime. He won this race by about 20 lengths on the bridle in 2013. A heart problem emerged nine months later that kept him off the racecourse for two years.
Last season he finished second in two Grade 1s but pulled up in this race. He seems better this season, taking the Shloer Chase here in November in a style reminiscent of his former glory, beating Somersby 14 lengths. Over Christmas he took the Desert Orchid at Kempton, beating Sire De Grugy less than a length. Nicky Henderson has done well to nurse him back to health but admits that he is not the horse he once was. He would bring the house down if he won but it is a big ask.
Henry De Bromhead’s Special Tiara (14/1) was one of the horses that beat Sprinter Sacre last season and it does not take a massive leap of faith to see him doing so again. This nine-year-old son of Kayf Tara was disappointing first time out at Navan in November, looking to need the run. It was a very different story at his next outing at Sandown in the Tingle Creek. If he had not been broadsided by Sire De Grugy at the last he might well have won. He was beaten nearly a length.
Special Tiara is a likeable, game little horse who often tries to make all. It may be no coincidence that he has fared best at relatively flat tracks like Sandown and Aintree. He was beaten three lengths by Dodging Bullets into third in this race last year. Good ground would aid his cause.
Decent ground would also help Dodging Bullets (14/1). We have only seen this eight-year-old once since that victory. He had never been lame in his life and all was going well for his Tingle Creek crown defence until he threw a splint after a schooling session in November. Lame in trot, his training regime was reduced to three hours a day on the horse walker.
Dodging Bullets was consequently short of a few weeks of canter work when well beaten by Kerry Lee’s Top Gamble in the Game Spirit at Newbury a month ago. The soft ground was not in his favour either. It was a double whammy as the unsuitable ground put fitness at a premium.
Trainer Paul Nicholls (pictured) was disappointed as he had been working so well at home but said before the race that he would definitely come on for the run. He also thought that Dodging Bullets was his best chance of a winner at the Cheltenham Festival. At double figure odds he holds obvious appeal.
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An interesting contender is the popular 2014 Champion Chase winner, Sire De Grugy (16/1). He had physical problems last season and did not start this one well. He finished last by some distance in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter in November. The Moores made no excuses for him and wondered if he was simply not as good as he used to be.
A month later Sire De Grugy silenced their doubts by taking the Tingle Creek. It was his fourth consecutive win at Sandown. He was subsequently beaten by Sprinter Sacre at Kempton and was runner-up to Un De Sceaux last time. This ten-year-old is certainly not ungenuine but the use of blinkers has been mooted in an attempt to sharpen him up.
The Moores know that something has to be done to improve his chances with horses that have beaten him on courses that suit him better than Prestbury Park. Sire De Grugy is at his most effective left-handed and likes plenty of give in the ground. Conditions are likely to be against him.
A 10-year-old who would not mind good ground is Felix Yonger (14/1). He almost went to Japan rather than Cheltenham as Mullins believes he would operate well on firm. He came second here in the Neptune as a six-year-old but could only finish fourth after starting as the favourite in the JLT Novices’ Chase two years ago.
Felix Yonger is obviously adaptable going-wise, coming into the race on the back of two wins on heavy ground. Most recently he took the Tied Cottage at Punchestown, beating Flemenstar about two lengths. Currently rated 161, Felix Yonger will need to find plenty of improvement to trouble the market leaders.
The same could be said for Tom George’s God’s Own (33/1) who is rated 2lb lower. This eight-year-old did manage to finish second to Un De Sceaux in the Arkle here last year. His two runs this season have not inspired any confidence in his ability to do so again.
The record of the 12-year-old Somersby (66/1) at Cheltenham makes him worth a mention. He was the runner-up in the Arkle in 2010 and in this race for the past two years. He finished six lengths behind Sire De Grugy and about a length behind Dodging Bullets. He finished second in the Shloer Chase here in November too, 14 lengths behind Sprinter Sacre. Somersby was subsequently beaten by exactly the same distance in both the Tingle Creek and the Desert Orchid, finishing fourth in both. It is difficult to see him finishing better than fourth here.
Our Preview’s Queen Mother Champion Chase Betting Tip
Paul Nicholls has an excellent record in this race and his belief that Dodging Bullets can succeed is compelling. His former stable jockey Ruby Walsh has mentioned that victories would be harder to come by for him with Mullins now that many of last year’s winners are out of the novice division. That sentiment applies to Un De Sceaux.