David Cleary continues his series of antepost previews for the Championship races at Cheltenham with a look at the Champion Chase, where his eye is on the 'without Altior' market...
"God's Own isn't good enough to win the Champion Chase unless others underperform, but he's a better chance of making the frame behind Altior than the 'without' market is likely to suggest and he will surely get the sort of ride that will optimise his finishing position."
Altior a scary prospect for rivals
Just 18 horses were left in the Champion Chase at the last forfeit stage and the race could end up with an even smaller field than in 2018 when just nine took part.
The reason is obvious - Altior, the best jumper in training, is bidding to win at the Festival for the fourth year in a row, unbeaten now in 17 races over hurdles and fences.
Altior won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle in 2016, the Arkle in 2017 as a novice chaser and this race, by seven lengths from Min, in 2018. He's seldom come close to looking likely to be beaten since switched to chasing, the only time in 12 races that he has traded above [2.0} in running on the Exchange when he was briefly off the bridle after the third-last in last year's renewal.
Altior has it all - he travels, he jumps and he finds loads up the Cheltenham hill. He is equally at home on ground ranging from good to heavy and really doesn't appear to have any flaws or quirks at all. He did jump left at Ascot, when sauntering home in the Clarence House last time, but it isn't the first time he's done that on a right-handed track and it won't be a problem back at Cheltenham.
An angle in
Trying to oppose Altior looks a fool's errand, but there may be an angle into backing something in the betting 'without Altior' market. Firstly, of the 17 possible opponents, only six have just the Champion Chase entry (one or two of those may even have a Grand Annual entry, those yet to be published). The three most obvious rivals are all trained by Willie Mullins and at least one and possibly two will run in the Ryanair.
Min has been left toiling by Altior in both the Supreme and last year's Champion Chase. He has been in good form this winter, winning both starts, and could well chase home Altior again, but it's hard to see why he should turn the tables, unless Altior has an off day (Altior have an off day!).
Un de Sceaux (pictured. left) was sent to take on Altior in the Tingle Creek before Christmas and made a good fist of it, on heavy ground, but Altior was too good and too strong for him on the climb to the finish. Un de Sceaux has a fine Cheltenham record, having won an Arkle, a Ryanair and a rearranged Clarence House there, second to Sprinter Sacre in the epic 2016 Champion Chase and last year's Ryanair.
Good though that record is, he might well finish second, were he to run here in stead of Min, but he seems more likely to contest the Ryanair.
Footpad won last year's Arkle in fine style and hasn't yet been pitched in and found wanting against Altior. His two starts this season have, though, been a bit underwhelming. His current position in the market is based more on expectation rather than the current state of play.
So to those with just a Champion Chase entry. Sceau Royal and Simply Ned were first and second in the Grade 2 Cheltenham Chase at the November meeting. Sceau Royal came out on top in a rather muddling affair, though with the runner-up conceding 3lb there is nothing to choose between them on that form.
Sceau Royal ran no sort of race in the Tingle Creek before running creditably over hurdles at Wincanton; Simply Ned came from the clouds to beat Footpad at Leopardstown at Christmas, that form nothing out of the ordinary for a Grade 1 affair.
Race veteran can get his Own way
Which leaves God's Own. He has been a regular in the Champion Chase, third last season, fourth to Sprinter Sacre and Un de Sceaux in 2016 and undone by a bad mistake two out in between, looking a big threat at that point and finishing fifth.
God's Own had two runs in the autumn, winning the Haldon Gold Cup and finishing second in the Peterborough Chase, conceding 6lb to Charbel at the top of his game.
God's Own isn't good enough to win the Champion Chase unless others underperform, but he's a better chance of making the frame behind Altior than the 'without' market is likely to suggest and he will surely get the sort of ride that will optimise his finishing position.