Trainers are always telling us never be afraid of one horse. That motto has always served the purpose when tilting at the stars but falls short when among those stars that horse happens to be Sprinter Sacre. Now the black beast is no longer a dark shadow towering over the Champion Chase field suddenly the minnows are swimming into the deep end again.
With the notable exception of Sire De Grugy, this is a field who until now have been content to play for the places. Even Paul Nicholls left runners in 'just in case.' The case has now been re-opened, just or not with former champion Sizing Europe rerouted and among those now hoping for more than just some prize money.
Sire De Grugy (3.211/5) was always going to run and while not many were suggesting he was going to beat Sprinter Sacre, he has reshaped the two mile landscape this season. His has been a sudden rise through the ranks, cleaning up in the absence of Henderson's superstar producing performances full of skill and swagger. The team includes grafter Gary Moore, paddling up the gallops knee deep in water as son Jamie chirps away like a Dick Van Dyke chimney sweep while Steve Preston and family support as though their village football club is nearing the final of the FA Cup. It is infectious, every step of the way.
Sire De Grugy and Sprinter Sacre met of course at Kempton over Christmas where some if not all of the gloss was shorn of a scalping win in the Desert Orchid Chase by the shocking surrender of the reigning Champion Chaser. As the press pack circled Nicky Henderson and the cameras followed so the lime and light parted. SDG was denied his moment, he was not the leading story of that day.
To an extent that helped Moore deflect attention while playing down his hand but when a second Grade 1 was delivered with verve at Ascot in December and then Sprinter Sacre exited stage left, SDG inherited favouritism, he became the one to beat. He deserves it too having won his four races this term by 30 lengths and to my eye, as well as Timeform's ratings, SDG is getting better all the time. He's also a second season chaser and they have won the 'Queen Mum' five times in the last dozen years.
It has been suggested - even within the camp - that Cheltenham doesn't suit SDG but I'm not having that. This the horse who was 2nd giving 10lbs to Kid Cassidy in November and beaten only by quadruple Grade 1 winner Captain Conan last season, his only visits to the track. Hardly negative form and on both occasions SDG was ridden close to the pace; Jamie Moore does not expose him there these days so he can delay his run. That is a significant factor in his overall improvement but he's also a much better horse than on those previous visits.
SDG won't get beat because of the 'Cheltenham factor' but the truth is he is not so far clear of the others on ratings that this is a done deal. Strange then that Arvika Ligeonniere (7.26/1) is touted when his record hints at Festival vulnerability. He ran okay in the Albert Bartlett though nearly tailed off but was pulled up in the Arkle last season. He is though a genuine two mile, Grade 1 horse and with seven wins from 10 chase starts, he knows how to win races. I'm just not sold on him here.
That Irish form hints that Benefficient (60.059/1) would be a proper player were he rerouted from the Ryanair but that seems unlikely according to connections. But Baily Green (14.5) ties into those form lines too and he is a lively outsider. He did me a favour when chasing home Simonsig at 33/1 in the Arkle last season and is one of many with a decent shout in the place market (3.39/4).
Sizing Europe definitely appeals in that (4.03/1) given his course form and overall record. His 4th place behind Benefficient at Christmas is the only time he has ever finished out of the money over fences and his first unplaced run in nearly five years. His Cheltenham figures are 1/up/1/1/2/2 which includes wins in the Arkle and Champion as well as silvers in each of the last two runnings of this. It's worth remembering when he unplaced in 2007 it appeared he was going to gag up in the Champion Hurdle before pulling muscles coming down the hill. It is an awesome record but even Moscow Flyer couldn't win at 12 so surely a place is his best hope.
Captain Conan (7.06/1) looks a likelier and perhaps the biggest threat having beaten SDG before and he is fresher than most coming into the Festival. He has seven lengths to make up on Tingle Creek form but that is possible while his run in the Jewson last year suggests he may be a two miler after all. Wouldn't it be typical that Captain Conan comes up with the goods for Hendo as understudy to the main man.
Sprinter Sacre may will be dining in as his title is handed over to a new champion on Cheltenham Wednesday when it will be said to be out on loan. Certainly Sire De Grugy doesn't scare opponents in the same way but he's better than the rest and better than he's given credit for too. The celebrations will be better than last year too, you can bet on that.
Alex Steedman's Champion Chase 1-2-3:
1 Sire De Grugy
2 Captain Conan
3 Baily Green
Back Sire De Grugy in the Champion Chase at 3.185/40