In the latest of GG’s Cheltenham Festival previews, Rory Delargy (@helynsar) tackles one of the meeting’s historic races, the Champion Chase and gives us his latest Cheltenham tip
The two-mile Champion Chase is a race which seems to resonate with all the prestige and historical significance of the Gold Cup, but is a rather more recent addition to the Cheltenham Festival, with the first running coming in 1959. Despite that, it’s the Grade 1 at the Festival which has been kindest to veterans, with the race being won by a horse aged ten or older on no fewer than 14 occasions.
That stat certainly gives hope to backers of the hat-trick seeking Altior, but was his recent Newbury win enough to justify his return to the head of the market? Let’s delve deeper.
Before putting the contenders under the microscope, I need to point out one important fact, and that is the strength of the market leaders. Only injury can prevent Altior, Defi du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi from totally dominating this market, and each of the three will attract partisan support.
At this stage, the trio account for 91% of the book, and that figure will not change dramatically. This means, firstly, that a lot of horses with other options will look to swerve the Champion (Min, A Plus Tard Un de Sceaux etc), making each-way betting now a tricky business, while those who do turn up on the day could be available at much bigger prices than they are currently – as an example, when Special Tiara won at an SP of 11/1 in 2017, he was available at 40/1 in the morning, simply due to the strength of the favourite.
With three horses taking more out of the book than Douvan did then, while also threatening to fill the places, expect similar generosity this year. In short, save your each-way betting for the morning of the race unless you know something which alters this scenario markedly.
Altior has no secrets, and again showed all his quality at Newbury in the Game Spirit, while simultaneously revealing his weakness, and backers must go into Cheltenham with their eyes open.
It’s hard to envisage Altior beaten after leading coming out of the last fence, and his strength in a finish is close to legendary. On the negative side, those who still believe he’s a superb jumper are being fooled by the visually spectacular, when efficiency is key.
Altior takes the breath away, but he is, to put it bluntly, not a good jumper. He wastes too much time in the air and tends to be slower away from fences than his main rivals; that is of no significance in a tactical race, or where his rivals inexplicably allow him to dominate, but in a well-run contest, it puts him on the back foot, as was demonstrated in his match against Cyrname.
He was slow in the air again at Newbury, and it’s clearly an issue that won’t be fixed, so the question is whether he will end up poorly positioned when the race begins in earnest, and whether his whirlwind finish will get him out of trouble.
Defi Du Seuil has been hailed as the new champion in waiting while Altior had been missing engagements, and the question with him is whether two defeats of Un de Sceaux since he was beaten by Chacun Pour Soi at Punchestown justifies that opinion.
Given the re-emergence of Altior and the continued progress from Chacun Pour Soi, it’s debatable at best, for all Philip Hobbs’s charge has shown himself to be hugely reliable since flopping on his chase debut. He’s certainly got more gears in a sprint than Un de Sceaux, but whether he would be as effective in a different scenario, such as a fast-run Champion remains to be seen.
I was keen to see Chacun Pour Soi prove himself in open company after his impressive defeat of Defi du Seuil at Punchestown, that effort coming on just his second chase start, and he pretty much backed it up when second to A Plus Tard on his return at Christmas.
Not everyone was impressed, but it removed any scepticism I had about Punchestown being a flash in the pan, and he was impressive when beating Min in a fast time.
To put his run at the Dublin Racing Festival into context, the overly strong pace set first by Ornua and then by Min saw the field reach halfway in a time 4.5 seconds faster than the other Grade 1 chase run at that trip on the day.
In normal circumstances, you could expect the latter contest to be run quicker from that point, but Chacun Pour Soi was still faster than Notebook from that point to the line, even though the finishing speed was slower than par. The fact that he could take four lengths out of Min from the second last without being put under maximum pressure was impressive.
It’s important to point out that Min is rated 171 by the Irish handicapper, a good 5lb higher than Un De Sceaux, and 8lb higher than the British handicapper has rated Sceau Royal.
The general discussion about the Champion Chase seems to suggest that the three main contenders have achieved much the same on form this season, but it’s a decent rule of thumb that you’re only as good as the best horse you can beat, and it’s extremely hard to argue that Chacun Pour Soi’s defeat of Min should be held in lesser regard than Altior’s defeat of Sceau Royal or Defi du Seuil’s beatings of Un de Sceaux and Politologue.
I think, with no dramas between now and the second Wednesday in March, that Chacun Pour Soi will start a clear favourite for the race, and he has to be backed at 3/1 on that basis.
Rory Delargy’s selection
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