The fact that the Arkle market is yet to settle down means it's a race primed for a bet, says Keith Melrose...
"The Irish novice scene, as you may have gathered, is rather complicated. In Britain it’s arguably even worse."
There's a reason that the Queen Mother Champion Chase is seen by so many as the ultimate test of a championship racehorse: it demands the ability to travel, jump, handle undulations and grind it out up the famous Cheltenham hill, all at speed. There's also a reason that the Arkle is the best preparation a young chaser can have for the Champion Chase: it provides almost exactly the same test.
Of course the Arkle isn't the preserve of raw two-milers- Kicking King, Tidal Bay and Captain Chris already this century have won or gone close in the race- which is why so many of this year's leading contenders aren't yet committed to the race.
Current favourite Champagne Fever provides a typical example. He's looked a stayer from day one, yet with a Champion Bumper and Supreme Novices' Hurdle to his name already to say he's been getting away with running over two miles would be a gross understatement! This could be where the road forks for him, however: with a run in the 21-furlong JP Moriarty scheduled to be Champagne Fever's next appearance he could be set for the Golden Miller in his bid to match Bobs Worth's feat of three consecutive Festival wins in different races.
The Golden Miller wasn't an option at all until 2011, when Paul Nolan's Noble Prince won the inaugural running. It's an even more enticing option now, as 2014 will mark its first staging as a Grade 1 contest, putting it in the same bracket as both the Arkle and the RSA.
Nolan could well have been the beneficiary again: his Defy Logic had appealed as a lively Arkle contender before a reported burst blood vessel in the Irish equivalent ended his season.
The Irish Arkle was ultimately won in Trifolium, who did it so easily that many rushed to the conclusion that he was the only one to truly give his running. They might well be correct, though Trifolium's achievement- an overdue first Grade 1 success and a Timeform rating of 159- stands nonetheless.
There's also the fact that both Defy Logic and Felix Yonger (second in the Irish Arkle) had beaten Trifolium earlier in the season. This could be a red-herring: Trifolium has visibly improved by the run over fences, including in terms of sharpness if you take his first meeting with Felix Yonger in particular.
Felix Yonger falls into much the same category as stablemate Champagne Fever. He isn't a two-miler, but has high-enough form over the trip to make him competitive against the best novices. A return to less-testing ground will see him to better effect and his level of form isn't as far off what would be required as his price may suggest.
The Irish novice scene, as you may have gathered, is rather complicated. In Britain it's arguably even worse. Dodging Bullets has admittedly passed all examinations laid before him up to now, though the form isn't really the strongest and his attitude was a frequent drawback over hurdles.
At their respective prices, Dodging Bullets' most high-profile casualty Grandouet makes more appeal, if only a little. He was ridden forcefully at Kempton over Christmas and just had no answer to the more cautiously-ridden Dodging Bullets after belting three out. The frenzied conditions of the Arkle may suit the strong-travelling Grandouet ideally, but equally the odd jumping error that continues to blight his runs over fences could prove his undoing.
It's another undefeated chaser that makes the strongest case of the British contenders. Valdez gave the beleaguered Alan King yard a welcome fillip when winning the Lightning Novices' Chase at Doncaster. It was King's first win since the stable was closed briefly in the new year due to a bug.
It's no great concern, then, that Valdez proved a little laboured in seeing off the unfancied Arnaud at Doncaster, especially as that rival enjoyed the run of things. Valdez also has a strong backup argument: his previous win, by 24 lengths in a handicap event at Newbury's Hennessy meeting, could scarcely have created a better impression. Assuming his yard continue to recover from its well-publicised issues, Valdez ought to be capable of the sort of performance that would go close in an average Arkle.
We admittedly don't know whether this year's Arkle will be up-to-standard or not. It has the potential to be a strong renewal should all current market principals turn up, but that's unlikely. From a betting point of view, it's probably prudent to take high-class, likely runners rather than would-be stars who may be diverted. That leads us to Trifolium and Valdez. Both are near-certain runners with the attributes to stand up to the unique examination posed in the Arkle.
Back Trifolium @ 8.27/1 & Valdez @ 12.011/1 in the Arkle Challenge Trophy
* Previously recommended: Defy Logic (out for season)