The last two winners of the Queen Mother Champion Chase head the ante-post market for this season's renewal, and yet both still have a fair bit to prove: 3.9 favourite Sprinter Sacre shaped encouragingly on his return to action last weekend, when second to Dodging Bullets, though will need to improve if he's to justify his position at the head of the market; Sire de Grugy has yet to be seen this season, though is set to make his return in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury next month.
The Game Spirit (at Newbury on February 7) looks set to be the crucial trial in the run-up to the Champion Chase. Not only is Sire de Grugy due to return, but another absent since last spring, Captain Conan, is pencilled in to make his comeback, having been off since injuring himself in the 2014 Champion Chase. There's a case for arguing that Captain Conan is a bigger price than he should be for this year's running (70.069/1 to back), having started second favourite 12 months ago, and that he could well start significantly shorter if he performs well in his comeback race.
Captain Conan had a very successful time as a novice, with his four wins from five starts, comprising three Grade 1 events at Sandown (two) and Aintree and the Grade 2 November Novices' Chase over the Champion Chase course and distance. His sole defeat came in the Golden Miller Novices' Chase at the 2013 Festival, where he travelled like the winner for a long way but found his stamina stretched in top novice company in a truly-run race at two-and-a-half miles on a stiff track. He traded significantly shorter than his starting price on Betfair, matched at 1.364/11 in-running.
Captain Conan returned the following autumn in the Tingle Creek at Sandown in which he faced a race-fit Sire de Grugy, the pair of them sent off at 7/4 joint favourites. In a strongly-run race on good ground, Captain Conan chased the pace and again looked the likely winner (traded at 1.51/2 in running on Betfair) before lack of an outing and the effort involved told against him, Sire de Grugy and Somersby coming from off the pace to relegate him to third. The performance was at least as promising as the winner's.
Captain Conan missed an intended start in the Clarence House at Ascot and didn't return until the Champion Chase itself. Sire de Grugy had thrived in the meantime, winning both the Desert Orchid and the Clarence House, and was sent off favourite at 11/4 at Cheltenham, with Captain Conan a well-supported second favourite at 7/2. The race went ideally for the favourite but couldn't have gone worse for Captain Conan and his followers - he hit the first and was never going well afterwards, returning lame.
Clearly, Captain Conan has to prove his well-being in the Game Spirit, but he just looks to have been dismissed by the market on the back of one explainable bad run. In terms of achievement up to the Tingle Creek, there wasn't a lot between Captain Conan and Sire de Grugy. There may not be much between them in the Game Spirit and if that is the case, Captain Conan's current price for the Champion Chase could well shorten dramatically.