The Queen Mother Champion Chase is always one of the most exciting spectacles of the Cheltenham Festival (3.20pm, Wednesday). This renewal is made more compelling for punters without the presence of the previously all-conquering Sprinter Sacre.
With Nicky Henderson’s now damaged ‘machine’ staying in his stable, the market is led by the Gary Moore (pictured) trained Sire De Grugy at 9/4. He looks the best horse on recent form but can he overcome his poor record at Prestbury Park? He has started as the odds on favourite here before and failed to deliver for punters.
This French-bred eight-year-old has delivered exceptionally consistent performance this season and Moore is generally not renowned for consistency. Sire De Grugy is. Why? Because he is actually trained by his son and jockey Jamie who picked him out from a crowd in France and found the Preston family owners an exceptionally rewarding investment.
Sire De Grugy was at his most impressive in his latest run in the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January. He beat Shark Hanlon’s Hidden Cyclone by 11 lengths, bounding effortlessly over the last and giving Jamie plenty of time to pat him rather than go for the persuader approaching the line. His closest pursuer in the betting market, Mick Channon’s Somersby had decanted Dominic Elsworth with one of his trademark mistakes at the fifth.
He won well in his previous run too, in the Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton in late December. That was the race that saw Sprinter Sacre fall victim to his heart problem and pull up. He beat Colin Tizzard’s Oiseau De Nuit by four lengths. It is difficult to get excited about beating a horse rated 15lb inferior to him by that distance.
The more interesting form line for this contest is his victory in the Tingle Creek at Sandown three weeks earlier. He beat Somersby by four lengths and had Nicky Henderson’s Captain Conan seven lengths behind him in third. The other race worth mentioning is his run in the listed Shloer Chase here in mid November. He started as the 5/6 favourite but was beaten comfortably by just over three lengths by Henderson’s Kid Cassidy who started at 4/1. He stumbled and nearly fell over after the fourth fence and looked uncomfortable at the sixth. He was carrying 10lb more than the winner, suggesting that he would have beaten him off level weights despite stumbling.
Kid Cassidy (10/1) lines up against him again here but in his only other run this season, at Leopardstown in the Grade 1 Paddy Power Chase, he finished seventh and last on December 27. He was 60 lengths behind Tony Martin’s Benefficient. Off level weights this eight-year-old is difficult to fancy. Owned by JP McManus, AP McCoy takes the ride.
Henderson’s stable jockey, Barry Geraghty is on the seven-year-old Captain Conan (9/2), who looks to have stronger claims. He is very highly regarded at Seven Barrows but is viewed as a horse who can be difficult to catch right. The Tingle Creek was his only outing this season and we can expect him to come on for the run.
Last season he won three fairly weak Grade 1 novice chases and beat Sire De Grugy by two lengths in the Grade 2 Arkle Trophy Trial Novices’ Chase here in November on his debut. He was less impressive at the festival in the Grade 2 Jewson Novices’ Chase over two and a half miles. He was nearly five lengths behind the surprise 20/1 winner, Benefficient. If he is as well as Geraghty has recently suggested, he provides Henderson with a realistic chance of making it three Champion Chase victories in a row.
Some top Irish trainers are sending out useful opposition to thwart his chances. Willie Mullins saddles the nine-year-old Arvika Ligeonniere (6/1). He was last seen winning the Grade 2 Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown in early February, beating Gordon Elliott’s Toner D’Oudairies by 14 lengths on heavy ground.
In his previous run at Leopardstown in the Paddy Power Chase (where we last saw Kid Cassidy) he started as the favourite but finished third by just over a length. He jumped to the right, suggesting a physical issue but still beat Henry De Bromhead’s Sizing Europe (14/1) by 15 lengths and Mouse Morris’ Baily Green (8/1) by nearly 30. That was on soft ground.
He is a class act with four Grade 1 wins under his belt and that run suggests he should easily hold those rivals but he has yet to demonstrate any aptitude for the unique demands of Prestbury Park. He pulled up in the Grade 1 Arkle Chase (also over two miles) at the festival last year. Baily Green finished second, two lengths behind Henderson’s Simonsig. Arvika Ligeonniere looks to be at his most effective going right handed, casting major doubts over his claims here.
In contrast the 12-year-old Sizing Europe is ultra consistent at Cheltenham and he will be wearing cheekpieces for the first time. He was runner-up to Sprinter Sacre by 19 lengths in this race last year, beating Philip Hobb’s Wishfull Thinking (25/1) by six. In 2012 he was the runner up to Henderson’s Finian’s Rainbow. He won the race in 2011. He will benefit from a decent surface and looks likely to place again at the very least.
Somersby (16/1) finished 12 lengths behind him in 2011 but has made a good to start to this season. He took the Grade 2 Haldon Gold Cup Chase at Exeter in November on his debut, beating Tom George’s Module by a head when giving him 3lb. He was then runner-up to Sire De Grugy in the Tingle Creek by four lengths, outstaying Captain Conan. If Dominic Elsworth had managed to stay on board in the Clarence House we would have a better idea of his chances here. He also unseated early on in this race last year. We cannot trust him not to do the same again.
The seven-year-old Module (16/1) won last time out in a Grade 2 contest at Newbury in February, beating Paul Nicholls’ Dodging Bullets by a neck when receiving 3lb from him on heavy ground. He looks to need a testing surface to show his best over this distance but has proved he can cope with the course. He won a handicap hurdle here in January 2012. Rated 157, he has 12lb to find to figure here.
Paul Nicholls’ runner, the six-year-old Hinterland (11/1) also has plenty to find, sharing a rating of 154 with Baily Green. He is unbeaten in his two runs this season, most recently winning a two mile Grade 1 Novices’ Chase at Sandown in December. He beat Henderson’s Grandouet by a neck. This is a major step up in class but he has posted a win and two placings at Prestbury Park over hurdles and will appreciate the drying ground. Noel Fehily has been booked to take the ride.
De Bromhead’s seven-year-old, Special Tiara (16/1) completes the line up. He finished third by six lengths here in the Shloer Chase, six lengths behind Kid Cassidy and three lengths behind Sire De Grugy when receiving 5lb from him. Most recently he was fourth and last by 28 lengths to Arvika Ligeonniere in the Tied Cottage Chase, weakening in the closing stages on unsuitably heavy ground.
He is currently rated 155 but connections will be hoping he can reproduce the form that gained him victory in the two mile Grade 1 Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree a year ago. He beat Donald McCain’s Overturn by nearly two lengths and had Sire De Grugy 26 lengths behind him in fourth. That was on good ground, more of it would help his prospects.
Champion Chase Betting Tips
Sire De Grugy is a worthy favourite but the question mark over his suitability for Cheltenham makes him easy to oppose at 9/4. Sizing Europe looks to be a solid each-way prospect at 14/1 but CAPTAIN CONAN has to be our pick to continue his trainer’s winning run in this race, best priced at 5/1 with Coral, Betfred and Unibet.