The RSA Chase has been won by many top-notch performers down the years - Denman and Florida Pearl instantly spring to mind - but this season's renewal looks like a lower-quality affair, with nothing in the field having shown outstanding form. The fact there isn't a superstar dominating the market makes for an interesting betting heat, however, and there could be a bit of value about.
Ballycasey, the current market leader at [9.2], was lightly raced over hurdles, very much appealing as the type to make a better chaser. Starting his chasing career over what seemed like an inadequate 17 furlongs - a tactic his expert handler Willie Mullins often employs with his novices to get them jumping at speed - Ballycasey created a fantastic impression to beat a useful prospect in Ned Buntline. It is true that the strongly-run race played into Ballycasey's hands, as did the fact his main market rival pressed on a fair way out having reeled in the free-going leader, Mount Colah, but it was still encouraging how Ballycasey managed to prevail despite racing over a trip well short of his optimum.
Ballycasey jumped soundly on his bow over fences, and looks sure to reach a higher level in this sphere when faced with a greater stamina test. With his RSA Chase prospects in mind, however, it is slightly disconcerting that he hasn't run since that taking reappearance, missing what looked like an obvious target in the three-mile Grade 1 Topaz Chase (won by Carlingford Lough) at Leopardstown. Ballycasey looks set to return in the 21-furlong Dr. P.J Moriarty Novice Chase at Leopardstown next month - a race Mullins has used as a stepping-stone on the way to RSA success with Florida Pearl and Cooldine - and it will be fascinating to see how he gets on against the likes of the talented Don Cossack. There is little doubt that he has the potential to make up into a Grade 1 performer - he ran creditably when third behind Morning Assembly on his only start in the highest company as a hurdler - but this long break between runs surely wasn't the plan, suggesting there has been some sort of setback, and he is difficult to recommend at a single-figure price for a race such as the RSA Chase with such little experience.
Looking at the rest of the Irish challenge, it is difficult to establish a pecking order among Carlingford Lough, Don Cossack and Morning Assembly as they all have pieces of form that make them legitimate contenders. Grade 1-winning hurdler Morning Assembly followed up an emphatic reappearance win with a hard-fought success over Don Cossack in the 22-furlong Florida Pearl Novice Chase at Punchestown, knuckling down well under pressure and showing a superb attitude to fend off his rival. Although he produced an improved performance on the figures in the Topaz, it was slightly disappointing that he couldn't hold off the late challenge of the experienced Carlingford Lough, particularly when you consider that the Galway Plate winner had been beaten by Don Cossack in the Drinmore despite Gordon Elliott feeling that the tough race against Morning Assembly had taken the edge off his charge.
The unexposed Morning Assembly has made just the three starts over fences compared to Carlingford Lough's 12, so it would be little surprise to see him reverse the form in the RSA Chase where a strongly-run contest with the emphasis on stamina should play to his strengths. It is hard to be dogmatic, though, and the best ante-post bet could be the Emma Lavelle-trained Le Bec who appeals as a rock-solid proposition in an extremely open renewal.
Le Bec only managed to achieve a fairly-useful level of form over hurdles - not helped by the Lavelle yard being in poor form for much of last season - but he has the pedigree and physique of a chaser and it is no surprise that he has shown much-improved form over fences. Racing over two and a half miles on his chasing bow, Le Bec claimed a couple of decent scalps as he produced a highly-encouraging performance to win by seven lengths. He duly built on that promising introduction by winning a well-contested novice chase over the same C&D as the RSA Chase, impressing with his fluent jumping and good attitude under pressure as he responded gallantly up the hill. Le Bec was not so fluent next time - over a furlong further on the New Course - but it was still a creditable effort to finish within four lengths of the well-ridden Sam Winner, to whom he was conceding 8 lb, and, considering that he stays well and has proven effective around Cheltenham, he looks like a big price at [17.0]. Unlike others, Le Bec has no alternative targets and his recent absence can be explained by Lavelle wanting to keep him away from the deep winter ground.
One horse that has no qualms with testing conditions is Mendip Express, who surged through barely-raceable ground at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, making a mockery of an opening mark of 139 that had actually looked rather harsh based on the form of his two previous chase wins. Having tanked through the race, Mendip Express, who made a significant error at the 11th fence, loomed up on the bridle, hit the front on the long run to the last, and always looked in complete control despite idling close home. Given the extreme conditions, and the fact so many failed to give their running, the form is obviously best treated with a degree of caution, but it was difficult not to be impressed by the way Mendip Express travelled and put the race to bed, and he is clearly a horse on the up. The fact that the four-mile National Hunt Chase has been mooted as a possible target means that caution should be applied on the ante-post front, but he would be of significant interest if turning up in the RSA Chase in a year where no horse holds outstanding claims.
Another horse that won't necessarily be targeted at the RSA Chase, but would be a fascinating contender if taking his chance, is the Oliver Sherwood-trained Many Clouds. Like a number of these, Many Clouds has the build of a chaser, and the way he has taken to fences is impressive, jumping with the sort of precision rarely seen from a novice. Capable of putting in a big leap when asked, Many Clouds has also been reassuringly accurate when getting in close and his fluent fencing technique looks sure to stand him in good stead wherever he ends up. He hasn't been highly tried yet but remains open to significant improvement in this sphere and shouldn't be underestimated.
Black Thunder actually got the better of Many Clouds in a 23-furlong novices' chase at Haydock, jumping well and travelling powerfully to win a shade cosily, and he also merits respect with some solid-looking form to his name. The defeat of subsequent Classic Chase winner Shotgun Paddy, in stamina-sapping conditions that ought to have suited the runner-up, reads especially well, and he wasn't disgraced when beaten by the bold-jumping Corrin Wood at Warwick last time. Black Thunder is also entered in the National Hunt Chase but he has never appealed as the type of horse that would relish four miles (unlike his Warwick conqueror, Corrin Wood), and this would seem like the obvious target. He represents good value at [30.0] and is a lively outsider for those looking for one at a price.
This looks like an extremely open renewal of the RSA Chase - the fact it is 8/1 the field tells you as much - and it could be worth siding with Le Bec who perhaps hasn't been given the credit he deserves for some smart efforts this season. An uncomplicated, strong stayer who, at the age of 6, could yet be open to further improvement, Le Bec ticks plenty of boxes and offers good value at [17.0]. The unbeaten Mendip Express, trained by the excellent Harry Fry, has strong claims and could be worth backing on the day, though his entry in the National Hunt Chase tempers enthusiasm at this stage.
Back Le Bec @ [17.0] to win the RSA Chase