Run over 2m 5f on the New Course, the Ryanair still has its detractors, but like I say every year, it’s a race I like and it’s a race I’ll continue to enjoy. Since its inception back in 2005, the contest has only grown stronger and stronger.
Some of the biggest names in jumps racing have won the Thursday Grade 1; greats like Imperial Commander, Albertas Run, Cue Card, Vautour and last season’s hero, the wonderfully gallant and tough Un De Sceaux.
The latter named looks like he’ll be back this season, but is Willie Mullins’s inmate beatable at the age of ten? On paper, the 2018 renewal looks extremely competitive. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the field.
Ryanair Chase ante-post preview
Un De Sceaux (7/2) winning last season’s Ryanair Chase was one of the most jaw dropping and fun races I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t quite up there with Our Conor’s Triumph victory or Vautour’s JLT success, but it wasn’t far behind.
Having run away with Ruby Walsh before going out on the final circuit – making the great jockey look like a passenger – the tearaway’s relentless performance had his field cooked and beaten four from home.
Given the brisk fractions he set in the early and middle parts of the race, it was natural for him to tie-up a touch close home, but he never looked remotely like getting beaten, his speculator jumping applying further pressure on his rivals. He was value for more than his 1 ½ lengths success.
Willie Mullins’s charge has understandably only raced twice this season – his free-going character meaning he rarely has an easy race, connections correctly choosing to keep him fresh – and they have produced facile wins in the Hilly Way Chase at Cork and the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, a contest he won for the third year in-a-row.
Both have come on his favoured soft surface, but to be fair to the ten-year-old, he’s shown plenty times at Cheltenham, faster terrain doesn’t deter. He’s not getting any younger – none of us are – but he remains in great order.
While the case, on paper, and depending what turns up, he’ll need a career best, but he’s not too far below the level of last season and there is every chance, given his trainer, he’ll be peaked for March once again.
Depending where you look, Fox Norton (11/2) appears to be the favourite’s biggest danger. Colin Tizzard’s stable star had a fantastic campaign last season despite picking up an injury mid-way through. He was just touched off in the Champion Chase before he went on to Aintree and Punchestown to win Grade 1s.
He started his 2017/18 campaign well, winning the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham by 8 lengths before just being beaten half-a-length in the Tingle Creek at Sandown where poor tactics and some hesitant jumps cost him.
The son of Lando was then asked to back up 17 days later in the King George at Kempton – a race I stupidly backed him in – but this run clearly came too soon after Sandown and he was pulled up. While it’s admirable connections had a go, taking up their plan ‘B’ clearly backfired.
We haven’t seen Fox Norton since that dismal effort, but I have no doubt he’s a lot better than that. Obviously. There is more to come, but it would be nice to see it on the track. More positively, the step back up in trip here will be a big plus for him. There is no doubt he can win the Ryanair, but connections must get him back in good order.
Being out of form is something Top Notch (11/2) hasn’t experienced this campaign, Nicky Henderson’s pocket rocket being two for two since switching back to the larger obstacles having started the season with a hurdles prep behind Unowhatimeanharry at Aintree.
His next run saw Grade 2 success in the Christy 1965 Chase at Ascot in beating Double Shuffle and Frodon by 8 and 10 lengths, respectively, now looks like top-class form with the former finishing second in the King George and the latter bolting up off 149 in a competitive Cheltenham handicap.
Simon Munir and Isaac Souede’s horse is not even close to being flattered by that victory. He oozed class at Ascot and simply had too many gears for horses now rated officially rated 166 and 164. If you believe those numbers – I’m still sceptical – there is a school of thought that the seven-year-old should be favourite.
Three weeks later he added the Peterborough Chase to his CV although he was workmanlike in doing so. A quick turnaround from a big Ascot effort and slower ground may have been to blame, but even so, his Ascot run marks him down as a bold player for this contest.
At the current stage of entries, Willie Mullins has a strong hand. The Irish Champion Trainer houses the current race favourite, but has also entered the likes of Bachasson, Douvan, Min, Killultagh Vic and Yorkhill.
Douvan, Min and Yorkhill have been discussed in previous blogs – the Champion Hurdle piece and the Champion Chase piece – but Bachasson and Killultagh Vic haven’t. It remains to be seen if both run here – the same can be said for the other trio – but Bachasson (20/1) is a horse floating under the radar a touch this season due to the tracks he has won at.
The seven-year-old has raced twice this campaign and won both starts in great style, at Thurles and Tramore. I really get the feeing there is more to come, but whether he can replicate those efforts on faster ground in more competitive races remains to be seen.
Killultagh Vic (20/1) was a horse I felt would deliver Willie Mullins the Gold Cup that he so badly seeks, but that was before injury intervened back in January 2016. The son of Old Vic returned from a lengthy layoff to win at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve, but is he still up to this level?
Since I got lazy and didn’t finish off this piece pre-Dublin Racing Festival, the above question has been answered. Killultagh Vic looks to have maintained a fair amount of his ability despite the serious nature of his past injuries. I suspect he would’ve just got home in the Irish Gold Cup before his final fence fall. He’ll probably head for the Gold Cup now.
Therefore, Douvan, Min and Yorkhill are more likely winners, but Yorkhill (12/1) is really the horse of interest. If you’ve read the other blogs, it’s clear how high I rate him. His victory in last season’s JLT was sensational and that form now looks top notch. See what I did there?
This free-spirited eight-year-old is not the type of horse to go and win 15 lengths, he’ll always only do bare minimum to get over the line, and that’s a trait I love. While his one length victory over Top Notch at last year’s Festival may look just satisfactory on paper, the reality is he was an easy winner of a race that continues to work out. Bookmakers are taking a small risk offering 12/1 about a horse of his ability.
Plenty obviously feel he won’t run here, but this looks the race for him. Ok, I understand Willie Mullins has the race-favourite, but given the number of quality animals in his care, Mullins will simply have to run two of his big names against each other, should they all get to Cheltenham in good order.
With Un De Sceaux being a ten-year-old, Douvan not looking likely to run in March and Min giving the impression he’s an out-an-out two-miler, Mullins may choose Yorkhill to bolster his chance here and win more of that dastardly Michael O’Leary’s money (I of course joke).
All the above was written before Yorkhill flopped at the Dublin Racing Festival. Having taken a big drift in the market before they jumped off, he ran accordingly. The usual hold he gives his rider never really materialised, and in truth, he just looked flat. This does curb the enthusiasm I had.
It seems crazy we’ve come this far down the preview and not mentioned the highly progressive and classy-looking Waiting Patiently (8/1). Formerly trained by Malcom Jefferson, who sadly passed away a couple of weeks ago, this seven-year-old son of Flemensfirth just looks a quality, young chaser heading firmly in the right direction.
He had some smart novice form last season, beating the likes of Forest Bhian and Politologue, but his latest 8 lengths success in a Kempton novice chase looks a career best in every sense of the word. In form, in style and on the clock, he is getting better. He jumps well; he’s economical, maybe too much so for two-and-a-half miles, but he is at least quick away from his fences.
The problem where Cheltenham lay, is Waiting Patiently needs to improve further. To be fair, I think that is certainly on the cards. The other issue may be ground related; connections don’t seem willing to risk their stable star on unsuitably quick terrain.
He appeared to handle decent conditions comfortably at Kempton last time out, but that came against inferior opposition. There is a good chance of much faster sod come March in unison with him taking on genuine top-class opponents. With that being the case, his price of 8/1 only looks fair.
A horse in a similar mould to Waiting Patiently – and also by Flemensfirth – but more proven is Coney Island (12/1). Trained by the underrated Eddie Harty and owned by JP McManus, this seven-year-old had some top-class novice form last season behind the likes Our Duke. In an interrupted campaign, he would also have the measure of horses like Anibale Fly, Disko and Road To Respect.
Coney Island would miss the 2017 Cheltenham Festival through injury and only made his belated return to action in December at Ascot in winning a conditions race by 9 lengths, hard held. The bare form probably flatters him a touch, but I’d still say it was a career best. When you factor in the distinct possibility of more to come, he’s an exciting horse.
The likes of Ar Mad (40/1), Balko Des Flos (12/1), Frodon (16/1) and Sub Lieutenant (20/1), for various different reasons, are interesting. Ar Mad is a horse I like, because he’s one of few who actually deserves his official rating, 159. We haven’t seen him since the Tingle Creek however, and while he’s overpriced, it’s hard to see him winning a Ryanair, especially given reservations about him running left-handed.
Balko Des Flos was a classy winner of the Galway Plate before seemingly going AWOL in his next two starts at Gowran Park and Clonmel. Maybe Henry de Bromhead gave his inmate a good rest after his summer exploits, and was slowly working him back to full fitness? Proper soft Irish ground is probably also a negative for him now, but back on a firmer surface last time out in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase, the seven-year-old son of Balko bounced back to form and produced a career best.
Under Denis O’Regan, Balko Des Flos jumped beautifully. He was fortunate in that he had plenty of space to be accurate at his fences, but he was deadly, and coming to two out, he had plenty of the field cooked. He was just outstayed late by a better horse on the day in Cheltenham Gold Cup contender Road To Respect, but the drop back in trip accompanied with a good gallop, could see him being the ideal Ryanair horse.
Frodon too, must get a positive mention on the back of his progressive, high-class handicap form which looks extremely solid. His latest success in the Crest Nicholson Handicap Chase at Cheltenham was impressive, the 17 lengths he won by telling that story. That did come on heavy ground however, and the handicapper has surely overreacted with his new rating of 164.
The question is, can he produce a similar performance against top-class horses on much faster ground? I have my doubts.
Finally, last year’s runner-up, Sub Lieutenant looks a big price at 20/1, for all he has been a big disappointment this season. He’s only run three times, but his first two efforts, especially his second run, were bitterly disappointing.
Last time out in the John Durkan, on ground that was surely way too soft to show him at his best, he took a significant step in the right direction. He hasn’t been seen since however, but it is encouraging he’s been left in the Grand National, so hopefully all is well.
At his best, he’s a genuine 160+ horse and as I say, on last season’s running in this, 20/1 is more than fair.
The Final Verdict
At this stage, the 2018 renewal of the Ryanair looks as exciting a race as we could have all season, and on the biggest stage. Now, we are sure to lose a couple of big names for one reason or another, but it’s a race full of strength in depth. There are so many 160+ horses entered, and they are followed by a handful of young guns who have the potential to explode onto the scene.
When you look at the race like that, it’s easy to take on the favourite, Un De Sceaux. Willie Mullins’s ten-year-old has showed this season in his two races that the fire still burns, but he’s won at prices of 4/6 and 4/9. He’ll take on his deepest field yet over this trip and at the prices, factoring in his age, you have to be against him at the stage.
I’d have Top Notch much closer in the betting to Un De Sceaux, based solely on his Grade 2 Christy 1965 Chase victory at Ascot. That form is phenomenal. The problem I have with Nicky Henderson’s inmate is there is every chance he could leave his Cheltenham race behind in running in the Ascot Chase on Saturday February 17th.
Having won the 1965 Chase, he went to Huntingdon three weeks later for the Peterborough Chase, but didn’t look anywhere near as impressive. Why? I think the quick turnaround didn’t suit him, and given he is not a robust horse, something similar could play out at the Festival.
At the prices, given his poor preparation, Fox Norton is easily avoided. At the start of the season, I thought he was the winner of this contest, but after a good opening pair of efforts to the campaign, his form tailed off and his training has been interrupted. He’s without doubt got a strong chance if at his best, but it’s not worth rolling the dice for now at circa 5/1.
Coney Island and Waiting Patiently could clash at Ascot this weekend, and that will tell us plenty. I’m a big fan of both horses, and when I said in the above intro to this section, “young guns who have the potential to explode onto the scene”, this pair top that list.
My gut feeling is this race could come too early in their careers, against proper, battle-hardened 160+ chasers. Neither have Cheltenham Festival experience either, so it makes sense to duck them now. Saturday’s brilliant Ascot Chase will tell us more.
Therefore, potential bets come in the form of Balko Des Flos, Sub Lieutenant and Yorkhill (Yes, him again – I must be as mad as him!). The most solid of the trio is BALKO DES FLOS, who will be coming here on the back of a career best.
Henry De Bromhead’s charge will also come here fresh, inform and with younger legs compared to respective rivals, meaning, at the prices, he looks a value bet against Un De Sceaux, Top Notch and Fox Norton.
At the prices, I’m also going to suggest backing the first selection’s stablemate SUB LIEUTENANT, who at 20/1 with the non-runner no bet concession looks a chance worth taking with the safety net there.
On this season’s efforts, he warrants to be that big, but his second in this race last season is some of the best form on offer here. He’ll only run if he’s right, and if he’s right, 20/1 is too big about a horse who at least took a big positive step last time out.
A quick final mention must go to Douvan and Min. The latter put down a strong Champion Chase marker when winning at the Dublin Racing Festival a couple of weekends ago, but with Douvan today been given an entry for this weekend’s Gowran Park card, should the former Supreme and Arkle winner make Cheltenham, a shuffling of the back could be seen. It’s just something to bear in mind.
2pts each-way Balko Des Flos @10/1 (Betfair Sportsbook, bet365, Paddy Power, Sky Bet – all NRNB)
1pt each-way Sub Lieutenant @20/1 (Coral, Ladbrokes, Paddy Power – all NRNB)