Ahead of the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase, Keith Melrose picks out a bet against favourite Sire de Grugy...
"With Sprinter Sacre as yet a non-contributor to the season, the two-mile chasing division feels like a pre-Tiger Woods PGA Tour, or the inter-Sampras/Federer years on the ATP circuit."
At the start of the current National Hunt season you'd have got long odds on the 2014 Champion Chase winner returning the lowest Timeform rating of the four championship races at the Festival. The prospect is a very real one now.
With Sprinter Sacre as yet a non-contributor to the season, the two-mile chasing division feels like a pre-Tiger Woods PGA Tour, or the inter-Sampras/Federer years on the ATP circuit. Its Mark O'Meara or Lleyton Hewitt is undoubtedly Sire de Grugy, who has already won the Tingle Creek and Desert Orchid and looks set to bid for the pre-Cheltenham Triple Crown in Saturday's Clarence House Chase at Ascot.
Sire de Grugy's consistency is pretty much beyond reproach even if his credentials as a would-be champion aren't. A narrow defeat to the talented Kid Cassidy (to whom he conceded 10 lb) at the Open Meeting is the only blemish on this season's record, with a handicap win off a BHA mark of 161 preceding the run that has taken him to second-favourite in the Champion Chase betting.
Sire de Grugy has already beaten five of his nine prospective rivals for Saturday's prize. That's not to say that they can all be cast aside. French Opera, Kauto Stone and to a lesser extent Special Tiara have a lot to prove, while of those yet to meet with the favourite both Days Hotel and Fox Appeal have significant question marks over the strength of their form and it's extremely unlikely that seemingly-exposed handicapper Lancetto will be good enough.
That leaves us with three potential alternatives, though we should first point out why Sire de Grugy isn't bombproof. Firstly, there's his level of form. He has of course beaten just about everything put in front of him this year and some spots of his form could arguably be higher, but his failure to convincingly shake off championship never-was Oiseau de Nuit at Kempton hardly suggested a horse that's ready to step up from prince regent to king.
That leads to our second point. Visually, the Desert Orchid was the least impressive of Sire de Grugy's wins this season, from seemingly the most favourable position at the weights (gave just 4 lb to Oiseau de Nuit). Couple that with the fact that it was already his fourth big race of the campaign and that this comes just a little over three weeks later: others come here fresher and that could be important. Like the form argument, it's a quibble rather than a yawning doubt, but with Sire de Grugy priced under 2.56/4 on Betfair we can afford to be picky.
Oiseau de Nuit is the first we'll deal with. Frankly, he's unlikely to win: he put up a spirited fight in the Desert Orchid, but if he was unable to overhaul Sire de Grugy there receiving 4 lb it's unlikely he'll do so off level weights. What can be guaranteed is that he'll run, while a fourth-placed finish in the Tingle Creek- in which he threatened better for a long way- suggests he's in excellent form this winter. A place bet, and the hope that the field cuts up, is your best play if you wish to back Oiseau de Nuit.
In many ways, Irish challenger Hidden Cyclone is the conundrum of the race. He gave an excellent account of himself in the Paddy Power at Cheltenham before dropping back to around two miles at Leopardstown over Christmas. There he finished second to Benefficient in the Dial-A-Bet Chase, which could be seen as slightly flattering given that several rivals- Arvika Legionniere, Sizing Europe, Kid Cassidy- were way below form. There's also to flip side of that view, which has three young, improving chasers coming clear. If it's the latter, Hidden Cyclone is a real threat here. It's a judgement call, but on the balance of probabilities 7.06/1 is seen as about a fair reflection of his chance.
Our final contender arguably needs the shortest introduction. Somersby has finished second (to Master Minded), first and third in the last three renewals of this race. He's had his troubles in between, not least last season, but he's seemingly settled at the Mick Channon yard now and has got back on track with a win in the Haldon Gold Cup and a second-placed finish in the Tingle Creek.
On the face of it, Somersby has a job to do in order to better Sire de Grugy now. He does have a few things in his favour, though. We alluded to two of them above, namely his old form and strong affinity for this course. There's also the fact that he's fresher now, having six weeks off since the Tingle Creek while Sire de Grugy has since had another hard race at Kempton. Freshness has been important to Somersby in the past, so this looks the perfect day for him to recapture past glories if he's ever going to.
If nothing else, Sprinter Sacre's absence has made the top two-mile chases into more interesting betting heats. It'd be sad, then, if we were to tip what's been left to take over as favourite. It's impossible to say that Sire de Grugy isn't the likeliest winner of the Clarence House Chase, but at current odds he's not the value. Instead, take a chance on Somersby who may well have one more chance at Grade 1 glory before the champion returns to restore order to the two-mile division.
Back Somersby @ 5.04/1 in the Clarence House Chase