The Queen Mother Champion Chase promises to be one of the races, perhaps even the race of the Festival.
In many ways the anticipated clash between Altior, Defi du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi is reminiscent of the 2005 running, in which Moscow Flyer, Azertyuiop and Well Chief, three successive winners of the Arkle, all took part. Moscow Flyer had won the 2003 Champion Chase, but had unseated Barry Geraghty in 2004, allowing Azertyuiop to prevail. The trio had filled the places in the Tingle Creek three months earlier, with Moscow Flyer coming out on top. At the age of 11, he did so again at Cheltenham.
And so, we have three horses that stand above their rivals in the way that Moscow Flyer and the others did a generation ago, two of them with exemplary records at the Cheltenham Festival, the other a new name who has looked the equal of the other pair on form shown this season. Mouthwatering certainly, but who will come out on top and is there an outsider with the potential to upset the apple cart?
Altior: can age wither him in search for Festival fifth?
Altior has proven all but invincible over jumps, with his only defeat in 21 starts coming on his return this season, his only race beyond two miles. He showed his well-being when winning at Newbury on Betfair Hurdle day, doing enough to suggest he'll prove as good as he was last season when the crunch comes. His very best performances are longer ago than that and it's possible age will catch up with him before the season is out. However, Altior has proved such a doughty battler up the Cheltenham hill, that it is hard to desert his camp.
Defi du Seuil: strong claims on style and Cheltenham record
Defi du Seuil has won 13 of his 18 races over jumps, those successes including two at the Cheltenham Festival, the 2017 Triumph Hurdle and the 2019 Golden Miller. He was beaten by Chacun Pour Soi at Punchestown last May on his final outing as a novice, but has taken his form to a new level this winter, successful on all three starts, in the Grade 2 Shloer Chase at Cheltenham and two championship races, the Tingle Creek and Clarence House Chases.
In both the last two races he beat Un de Sceaux, narrowly at Sandown in the former, much more impressively at Ascot in the latter. Whether Un de Sceaux was at his best under a less good ride at Ascot is the question, the proximity of Marracudja in third tending to suggest Defi du Seuil didn't have to run any better than he had at Sandown.
Chacun Pour Soi: lightly raced with a high level of form
Chacun Pour Soi may be a new name, but he is a year older than Defi du Seuil and has had just eight runs in a career which began in August 2015. He was off three years prior to a winning Irish/chasing debut last March then hit the headlines when beating Defi du Seuil at Punchestown, with the Arkle winner Duc des Genievres a remote third.
Chacun Pour Soi was beaten at 15/8-on at Leopardstown at Christmas, the absence perhaps the reason, and he made amends when winning the Grade 1 at the Dublin Racing Festival back there at the start of the month. He beat Min on that occasion, though perhaps not by so far or ultimately so impressively as had looked likely to be the case at the last.
Those seeking to spoil the party
Min set a searching gallop that day and could fulfil the same role again at Cheltenham. He has been to Cheltenham three times and been beaten by Altior on each occasion, so it may be that he will sidestep a fourth engagement with the champion and go instead for the Ryanair, also a likely destination at this stage for A Plus Tard.
A Plus Tard might be a player, if he were switched to the Champion Chase. He beat Chacun Pour Soi at Christmas and then missed the rematch due to the ground. A Plus Tard had romped home in the otherwise very competitive novice handicap at last season's Cheltenham Festival and then was probably stretched by the trip when third to Delta Work at Punchestown. He'd probably need the ground to be very testing to be switched.
Willie Mullins has other entries besides Chacun Pour Soi and Min, but Cilaos Emery is Champion Hurdle bound, while Un de Sceaux seems more likely to tackle the Ryanair again (though could fulfil pacemaking duties, rather than Min, particularly if conditions were testing).
Paul Nicholls has Politologue and Dynamite Dollars in the race. The former is a known quantity who isn't good enough if even just one of the front three in the betting shows his form. Dynamite Dollars is not fully exposed and he shaped well against Altior at Newbury after over a year off. However, it is hard to envisage his making the improvement required to trouble the best two-milers around.
The overpriced horse from an each-way point of view, at 33/1 with Betfair Sportsbook, is Sceaux Royal, who was third in last season's renewal after travelling strongly into the straight. He again went smoothly until very late on when second to Altior at Newbury, just edging out Dynamite Dollars.
It's possible the field for this race will cut up, with only 18 in at the moment and most of those with alternative engagements, so that he is only in this race is a plus. The negative is that there are three strong contenders at the head of the market and it's hard to see Sceaux Royal beating all three.
This is, obviously, an ante-post betting column, but beyond that tentative advice the Queen Mother Champion Chase doesn't really look a betting race with a good angle at this stage, the front three priced up just right. I adored Moscow Flyer and feel similarly sentimental about the prospect of Altior gaining a historic fifth win back at the Festival in March.