The Ryanair Chase has always stood out to me as one of the more compelling ante-post markets of the Festival, and this year is no different.
As has been the case for much of the season so far in Sprinter Sacre's absence, it's all about Cue Card. The Tizzard's stable star had his Gold Cup odds slashed after his impressive Betfair Chase win but after faltering close home in the King George, old doubts about him getting the Gold Cup trip linger on.
The fact he wasn't given a Champion Chase entry was all the more surprising given the recent doubts surrounding Sprinter Sacre's participation, and at this stage it looks a toss-up between this contest and the Gold Cup a day later.
In the aftermath of his narrow Kempton defeat Colin Tizzard was reported as saying his preference would be for the Gold Cup, although the Ryanair was 'tempting'. Thursday's contest would undoubtedly be the less competitive option, and Cue Card is 9 lb clear on weight-adjusted Timeform ratings for a race he won by a record margin in 2013. However his handler has never been one to shy away from a challenge and if you believe your charge is a Gold Cup contender then making a case for charting any other course is usually wasted breath. If he were sure to line up the current available odds of [5.4] would represent some value, however it looks likely he will take his chance against Bobs Worth et al, and thus we must look elsewhere.
Next in the market comes Al Ferof, another who struggled at Kempton and who may be Gold Cup bound. Given his Cheltenham record he would be an interesting contender were he likely, but as this stage his Festival target depends on a run in the Denman Chase at Newbury, he would have to be double-figure odds to appeal at this stage.
With Cue Card and Al Ferof's participation so up in the air Benefficient almost picks himself as an attractive ante-post proposition. His win in the Jewson last year was one of the more surprising results at the Festival, but a three and-a-half-length victory over Dynaste confirmed him as one of the smartest and most progressive novices of last season.
On closer inspection Tony Martin's charge has a lot going for him: he now has three Grade 1s to his name and festival form over C&D in the book. His recent win in the Dial-A-Bet chase was a career best on Timeform figures and although he would have to improve to match those posted by recent winners Riverside Theatre and Cue Card, as an eight-year-old that is a distinct possibility.
Most importantly for our purpose is that this race looks by far the most likely target (he has a Champion Chase entry but it would be hard to envisage connections favouring a match with Sprinter Sacre) and if you factor in his versatility ground-wise and current odds of [9.4] look excellent value.
Given how determined Michael O'Leary is to win the race he sponsors, any entry owned by Gigginstown must be given due consideration. However at this stage the shortest priced of the quartet, last year's runner up First Lieutenant, is currently trading at odds of [26.0]. Were he to line up he would be outstanding value even at half those odds, but its likely that in the absence of Sir des Champs he is Gold Cup bound. Last Instalment looked a horse of considerable ability in his younger days but there are too many questions marks surrounding him after over a year off the track, and in truth this looks too stiff a task for both Rathlin and Toner d'Oudaries on all known form. Perhaps Michael O'Leary's quest to line his own pockets in this race will have to wait another year.
Our second selection can be found a little closer to home, in the shape of the Martin Keighley-trained Champion Court. The Condicote handler has had an outstanding season including his first Grade 1 triumph courtesy of Annacotty, but it was Champion Court that really put him on the map.
Keighley's stable star was a creditable fifth in the race last year, travelling notably strongly for much of the race but weakening in the closing stages, probably paying the price for attempting to take on a rampant Cue Card up front. He showed a likeable attitude when holding off Menorah back at Prestbury Park in April, and looked a significant danger on his seasonal reappearance in the Paddy Power before an uncharacteristic jumping error put any chance he had to the sword.
He equalled his career-best on Timeform figures in the Peterborough Chase in December, and had his saddle not have slipped after the last he may have fought off another Lazarus-like comeback from Riverside Theatre. Sadly we will never know what difference a change to hold-up tactics would have made in the King George last time out as he unseated at the fifth, although it's likely he wouldn't have figured.
Despite his many admirable qualities Champion Court is a horse who falls just short of the very top level, but with Riverside Theatre the only one of the first four from the last year's race likely to re-oppose - and even Barry Geraghty may struggle to raise him from the dead a third time - his current odds of [20.0] look a steal.
The other who merits consideration is Dynaste, who is more than capable of bouncing back from his disappointing run in the King George. The next logical step for him is undoubtedly the Gold Cup but at odds of [15.5] there is a case for backing him in case he does turn up; he has an outstanding chance on form and you'd be lucky to get a quarter of those odds on the day.
Perhaps it's because the Ryanair Chase has always been a bit of a halfway house for the top chasers that it's such an attractive prospect from an ante-post perspective. It's likely the complexion of the race will change considerably between now and when the tapes go up on the March 13th, but backing Benefficient and Champion Court should ensure that excellent value remains a constant.