Timeform's Matt Gardner assesses the field for the Champion Chase...
"Captain Conan is entitled to finish much closer to Sire de Grugy this time around, something which is not represented in their current prices..."
Sprinter Sacre will not defend his Champion Chase crown. That much has been confirmed by trainer Nicky Henderson who reported that his stable star was not 100% in a recent piece of work and would not be risked at Cheltenham.
One of the many questions raised in the aftermath was whether connections would opt to supplement Cue Card for the race but that thought process was quashed before it really had chance to gather momentum, Colin Tizzard informing the public that his stable star had been struggling with a muscle injury for about a week and would also skip Cheltenham, though it is hoped that he will be back in time for Aintree.
The Festival spans four days, each one trademarked by its feature race and the superstars that partake. The Champion Hurdle has an astounding array of talent at its disposal this season, the Gold Cup has a couple of standout performers and the World Hurdle has Big Buck's (and potentially Annie Power, depending upon which race Willie decides to go for), but in comparison the Champion Chase is lacking. There's Sire due Grugy, but is he a star?
Top-class? Yes. Consistent? Yes. Likeable? Yes. A standout two mile chaser? No. Sire de Grugy's Timeform rating has him just about bang on the average required to win this race since the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 and he's priced accordingly, currently trading at 3.02/1. With value being utterly imperative at the ante-post stage he would be a particularly unoriginal selection so, for all that he's the most likely winner, the selection shall come from elsewhere.
First though, an elimination of those in the ante-post market that could sway the intrepid punter away from the horse that should be backed. Al Ferof is Ryanair bound unless Cheltenham is hit by a catastrophic storm in the next fortnight, and he'll probably be joined by Benefficient, Module, Baily Green and Wishfull Thinking. Hinterland wouldn't be out of place here by any means, though is just as likely to line up in the Arkle, whilst Alderwood is a sloppy jumper at best and ran a stinker on his only start this season back in October.
It would be easy to let the heart rule the head with regards to Sizing Europe, an admirable veteran who won this race in 2011 and has since finished runner-up in each of the last two renewals. He has won this season, in a Grade 2 at Gowran Park in October, but that performance was some way short of his best and his two subsequent defeats strongly suggest that, now 12, he is not the force of old.
Somersby is closely matched with Sire de Grugy judged on his performance in the Tingle Creek, and he is pretty consistent at this level, but the feeling is that he just lacks a change of gear at two miles these days, particularly when the ground is on the quicker side. Kid Cassidy is another for whom it's possible to make a case; he produced a career-best when beating Sire de Grugy at Cheltenham in November but bombed out, for no obvious reason, at Leopardstown the following month and is now on a bit of a retrieval mission.
That reduces the field to three, the second and third favourites and a relative outsider. Let's first deal with the second favourite, namely Arvika Ligeonniere who boasts a cracking strike-rate over fences and returned to his very best in the Tied Cottage Chase on his latest outing. That came on the back of an inexplicably disappointing effort in the Dial-A-Bet Chase the time before and that's the worry here, just how likely is he to produce his very best form? There's not much wriggle room at 6.86/1, that much is for sure.
The one at a price is Special Tiara, a Grade 1 winner as a novice when beating the likes of Overturn, Alderwood and a certain Sire de Grugy in the Maghull at Aintree. He returned to that level when finishing behind Kid Cassidy and Sire de Grugy at Cheltenham in November but there was plenty to like about the way he went through the race, jumping boldly and travelling with exuberance from the front. His latest effort is best forgiven on account of the ground and, though he is potentially more at home on a flatter track, it's difficult to pick too many holes in him and he does look a touch overpriced at 36.035/1.
That's the speculative selection out of the way, now time for the main bet. Nicky Henderson may not be nailed on to win this race as he would have been with Sprinter Sacre in the line-up but he could add a fourth Champion Chase to his CV nonetheless, courtesy of Captain Conan. Successful in four of his five outings as a novice, including three Grade 1s, his only defeat came at the Festival in the Jewson, where he didn't see things out quite so well as expected after pressing on with eventual runner-up Dynaste from three out.
Captain Conan made his seasonal return in the Tingle Creek, when sent off the joint-favourite with Sire de Grugy, and it was a most encouraging one, typically jumping well throughout but ultimately paying for racing closer to the overly-strong pace than the pair that beat him, namely Sire de Grugy and Somersby. He showed more than enough however to suggest that he would be making an impact in this sort of company and he is entitled to finish much closer to Sire de Grugy this time around, something which is not represented in their current prices.
The disparity in price can in part be attributed to the fact that Captain Conan has not been seen since, which is a less than ideal preparation for the Champion Chase, but he looks the one to be on nonetheless at 8.07/1, a bet which can be supplemented with a tentative tickle on Special Tiara at 36.035/1.
Back Captain Conan @ 8.07/1
Back Special Tiara @ 36.035/1