The highlight race on the second day of the Cheltenham Festival is the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase. Run over 2m on the Old Course – just like the Champion Hurdle – it’s very much a test of jumping and travelling at speed.
Before the season started, on paper, this was shaping up to be one of the races of a lifetime, and I don’t say that lightly, but plenty of water has flown under the bridge, as we will discuss in more detail below.
Queen Mother Champion Chase ante-post preview
At the start of the season, the 2018 Champion Chase lured race fans into a potential clash with two of the game’s heavyweights, Altior (5/4) and Douvan (6/1). The former, the young pretender with an air of Sprinter Sacre about him; the latter, the unofficial king of the division on the comeback trail from injury.
Sadly, the perfect seasons that we wished for both leading into the Cheltenham Festival haven’t materialised. Altior was found to have a wind issue and was subsequently operated on. Douvan was all set to reappear in the Tingle Creek before being pulled out; his trainer Willie Mullins not fully happy with the gelding’s wellbeing.
Nicky Henderson has always said there is a sound chance of Altior making it back for Cheltenham, and he may run in the Game Spirit at Newbury in February. Willie Mullins on the other hand ruled Douvan out for the season before Christmas, but has since done a U-turn on that call, and there is a small chance of Rich Ricci’s star horse getting to Cheltenham.
With still so much up in the air concerning that pair, focus should be put on those horses fit and well. We’ll start with Paul Nicholls’s Politologue (9/2).
He was a horse I was lukewarm on throughout his novice campaign last season. I knew he was a graded animal, but at no stage did I feel he was top-class. I also had a small doubt about his ability to find off the bridle which is maybe not a surprise given the ease at which he travels.
Even after he had the Grade 1 Maghull Novices’ Chase at the Aintree Festival wrapped up before falling at the last, I still questioned him competing at the highest level. This season however, has proved my analysis of him all wrong. Why? Because he was being campaigned over the incorrect trip.
Since the team at Ditcheat have dropped the strong-travelling and quick-jumping grey back to 2m, he hasn’t looked back. His victories in the Haldon Gold Cup, Tingle Creek and Desert Orchid have proved three things.
One: he’s now a top-class horse. Two: he idles badly when he hits the front, and three; he finds off the bridle and battles, as we saw in the Tingle Creek in beating Fox Norton.
With so many horses struggling to make the track, this progressive seven-year-old must be fully respected. He’s a horse tailormade for the Champion Chase test.
He’s a different colour, but in many ways, Min (5/1) reminds me of Politologue. In fact, he’s Politologue, but Politologue on cocaine (or Lucozade for the kids reading). Willie Mullins’s inmate is himself a strong-traveller, but maybe too strong. He’s also a quick jumper, but maybe too bold. He does everything his peer does, but in excess.
Rich Ricci’s horse has only been seen twice this season so far. On the comeback trail from an injury that ruled him out of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, Min made his eagerly awaited return at Gowran Park. He would win a poor race on heavy ground at 1/9.
Much more was expected of him when upped in class to Grade 1 company at Leopardstown over Christmas. However, at odds of 2/7, he would be turned over by the gallant (essentially) 11-year-old Simply Ned. He did finish in front of the ‘winner’, but was correctly demoted having badly hampered his rival.
There is little doubt in my mind that Min was below his best this day, and while it was disappointing he lost, it was impressive how he quickened away from horses like Ordinary World and Ball D’Arc off the home bend before ‘losing’.
He at least travelled well, jumped boldly and battled late. I just get the feeling there is more in the tank and we may see it in his next run which could come at the Dublin Racing Festival.
In a race that has more questions than answers to the very top of the market, it’s a similar scenario as we go down the prices. For example, last year’s runner-up Fox Norton is an 8/1 shot, but he looks more a Ryanair horse and would be of interest in that race. The fact he disappointed in the King George at Kempton in his last run is also off-putting.
Un De Sceaux (12/1) is a horse that still looks to be in decent order at the age of 10. He’s only ran twice this season but he’s won both times; at Cork in the Hilly Way and at Ascot in the Clarence House. He’s another that looks more of a Ryanair type at this stage of his career. He’s the reigning Ryanair champion and I suspect that’s the race he’ll run in come March, unless we get bottomless ground.
Going down the list of remaining entries and I’m just not sure there are any horses with the capabilities of the above-mentioned sextet. Great Field (14/1) is intriguing but he has yet to race this season because of a setback and he may not make the Festival.
Ar Mad (33/1) could run a big race here especially if he got into a nice jumping rhythm, which he didn’t do the Tingle Creek, but he doesn’t look good enough in truth and there are questions to be answered about him running left-handed.
Charbel (25/1) is another classy horse – especially on quick ground – but he’s below the top bracket and jumps too hesitantly for a Champion Chaser. The likes of Politologue would eat him up jumping and constantly take lengths out of him.
Favourable mentions must go to the old boys Gods Own (50/1) and Special Tiara – both Grade 1 winners -who have achieved more than the likes of Ar Mad, Charbel and Great Field. The former is a spring horse who was fifth in this race last year, but in a likely stronger renewal with advancing years, he’s best watched.
Defending Champion Special Tiara (20/1) is now 11, but there is still plenty life left in the old boy, especially when he encounters his favourite fast surface. He’s classy and gallant enough to outrun his price of 20/1, but father time is not on his side and there is a fair chance of this year’s renewal being far stronger. On the other hand, should Altior and Douvan both miss the race, that 20/1 would look huge, especially from an each-way perspective.
Just like the ante-post Champion Hurdle blog, there is a potential fly in the ointment in this race, and it again comes in the shape of Yorkhill (5/1). Willie Mullins’s charge is a supremely talented, but nutty individual.
However, give him a left-handed track over two to two-and-a-half miles, and he’s a match for any horse in training. The chestnut son of Presenting has been to Cheltenham twice in March and won both times.
His Neptune Novices’ Hurdle and JLT Chase successes really got your pulse racing. With the form of last season’s success here working out so well, I find it incredibly hard to leave him out of any Cheltenham race he is entered for.
The Final Verdict
This year’s Champion Chase is a pretty tough race to be confident on in terms of having an ante-post bet. Altior and Douvan look a notch or two above the rest of the field at their best, but are by no means guaranteed to run. That’s true of all those entered, but their aforementioned problems mean it’s less likely they turn up or arrive in top order.
With that being the case – just like the Champion Hurdle – I really don’t see the point in swinging the bat at horses with sexy prices. Special Tiara was the only one of interest, but even that was limited, especially at the age of 11.
Reading between the lines, it really does look like Altior is more likely to make the race then Douvan. Whether he comes to Cheltenham on the back of a prep or straight here is to be decided, but given his wind issues and the likelihood of soft ground at Newbury for the Game Spirit, Nicky Henderson may choose a direct route to the Champion Chase.
If the case, I do feel the brilliant son of High Chaparral could be vulnerable. To win a Champion Chase or any race at Cheltenham, you need to be sharp and on your game; there is no room for error.
Furthermore, and call me crazy for suggesting it given his Cheltenham Festival record on the track, but I really don’t think the Old Course shows Altior off at his very best, and last season’s Arkle form is substandard because of that.
He’s such a long-striding horse who takes a while to get into top gear, the sharp nature of the track doesn’t allow him to fully use himself. If this take longer as he gets older? He could be got at. Tracks with long straights and stiff climbs like Newbury and Sandown are ideal for the eight-year-old, as we’ve seen in the past.
Therefore, at the prices, I’m willing to take Altior on, especially as he’s not certain to line up.
Douvan it seems is an unlikely runner, but the 4/1 non-runner no bet about him looks generous with the safety net there. Should he run, he’ll likely be half those odds, and if he does show, he’s likely to be in good order; no risks will be taken with his wellbeing.
The problem lay in Willie Mullins also having Min and Yorkhill in the race. There could still be a fair bit of juggling done yet, but what is noteworthy is how little faith the Mullins camp have lost in Douvan, despite him currently working his way to full fitness.
Should he not run, Min is likely to sub in for his stablemate, but Yorkhill could also run here. If Min, Un De Sceaux and Yorkhill all get to the Festival in good order, Willie Mullins will be left with no choice but to run two in the one race – in either the Champion Chase or Ryanair – but it’s tough to work out.
Given how exuberant Min is, it makes sense to keep him to two miles. Yorkhill is better equipped and has shown far more stamina compared to Min, so the Ryanair may end up being his destination. Un De Sceaux is almost certain to line up in the race he won last season, but at the age of 10, Willie Mullins may look to the Ryanair for a two-pronged assault, with Yorkhill.
This leaves us with Min and Politologue as potential bets. Like we discussed earlier, apart from their colour, these two are very similar in how they approach the game, and in ability. Both travel well and both jump accurately.
There is a feeling we may have seen the best of Politologue already this season and on his favoured underfoot conditions. Min on the other hand, still reeks of untapped potential who could prove even better on spring ground.
With that being the case, MIN gets the nod. I realise he must bounce back from a disappointing effort at Leopardstown over Christmas, but he disappointed in running to around 160. That’s a good level to disappoint at.
Now, time may prove that’s as good as he is, but getting him on some spring ground around a sharp track like Cheltenham could see him go close. He’s exactly the type of horse to worry Altior, who got a small fright, a very small fright albeit, off Charbel in last season’s Arkle. Min is without doubt a better horse than Charbel, and he could have more to offer.
I’m also going to suggest backing Douvan with the NRNB concession. Should he run, he’ll halve in price and we’ll get our money back on Min. If he doesn’t, nothing will be lost and Min could win it for Rich Ricci.
1.5pts win Min @4/1 (Betfair Sportsbook, bet365, Paddy Power, Sky Bet) – all Non-Runner No Bet
1pt win Douvan @4/1 (bet365), 7-2 (Betfair Sportsbook, Sky Bet) – all Non-Runner No Bet