It's a nervous time to be a jumps fan. Despite the feast of racing which awaits between now and Christmas, Timeform's two highest-rated chasers, Cue Card and Sprinter Sacre, have to prove they retain their old ability after significant injury scares. If they don't, whatever the rest of the season holds, there will be a distinct lack of sheen to proceedings. Sprinter Sacre's test lies further ahead, but for Cue Card this Saturday, when he attempts to defend his Betfair Chase crown, is the big one.
In winning last year's race Cue Card ran to a rating of 180, the highest by any chaser in training last season. If he is in the same form this year, there is no reason to suggest he won't win impressively again, and if that's the case then the current 3/1 on offer looks a pretty decent price. The big question is, will he be?
The short answer is that it is impossible to know for sure. A known unknown, if you will. However there are plenty of reasons to be sufficiently optimistic to back him, which is the long and short of Timeform's view of the race. If you'd have stopped his comeback run in the Haldon Gold Cup last time two fences from home it would have looked the perfect pipe-opener. As it is he finished fourth, only the second time in 13 completed starts over fences that he has finished out of the first three. In doing so he ran to a figure 10lb inferior to the previous year, but there are mitigating circumstances.
The first is that Cue Card had an injury to overcome, and a fairly serious one at that. The talk of retirement was far from premature at one stage so to shape so well for much of the race at Exeter was actually a hugely encouraging sign, even if he did falter slightly in the closing stages. The other point is that he lacks the pace for two miles these days and had to give away weight to two fairly progressive horses in that sphere in Balder Succes and God's Own. Cue Card more than hinted that the old ability was still there and so, after further inspection, it now looks an encouraging reappearance.
As for Saturday, it's hoped that run will have put Cue Card where he needs to be in terms of fitness, and the reliable record discussed above should give punters heart too. He is the best horse in the race on Timeform figures and with Daryl Jacob (Timeform Jockey Rating +4.03) taking over from Joe Tizzard (+0.63) another positive, it's advised you take the 4.03/1 currently on offer in the expectation that the old Cue Card will be back with a bang.
The betting looks to have the rest of the field about right, with Dynaste and Silviniaco Conti coming next in the market. Dynaste ran a career-best when second in this race last year and he was largely consistent at the top level last season, bar a blip in the King George. Given David Pipe's current form he is sure to have his supporters, but although Dynaste has more than earned the right to run at the top level, you get the feeling he may just be found wanting in the more competitive Grade 1s. He didn't beat a bad field in the Ryanair in March but it is fair to say there weren't any superstars, and as he's only half a point bigger than Cue Card for Saturday's race with a four-and-a-half length deficit to overcome, he is best avoided.
Silvinaco Conti, like Cue Card, has had the benefit of a comeback run, but looked badly in need of it at Wetherby in the Charlie Hall. You can bet your bottom dollar that Paul Nicholls left a bit to work on and it although visually it might not have been that encouraging, it may be that he needs a run to get him sharp these days. Were Cue Card to underperform you fancy Silviniaco Conti would be best placed to pick up the pieces, especially as he is likely to encounter his optimum conditions - soft going and a flat track - on Saturday. Nicholls has proved himself peerless at priming his horses for a big day, and Silviniaco Conti merits serious respect for that reason.
If there is one horse who could spring a surprise in the field it's Taquin du Seuil, who ran right up the best of his novice form when second at Wetherby last time. It may be that the increased emphasis on stamina the likely soft going will provide on Saturday will bring about improvement too, give he shaped as if the Charlie Hall didn't quite get to the bottom of him. With Barry Geraghty booked and conditions more likely to suit if you were after a saver in the race he looks the most sensible candidate at 7.06/1. He certainly looks capable of winning a race of this nature at some stage, it's just a question of when.
The rest of the field don't make much appeal. Menorah won the Charlie Hall well last time but has proved consistently inconsistent and for that reason, despite the rampant form of handler Phillip Hobbs, can't be backed at around 8.07/1 with any confidence. Harry Topper has always looked a horse who will need his first run back and with a history of jumping errors doesn't make much appeal off a 252-day break. The Giant Bolster is hard to catch right and there's enough of a doubt as to whether the strong-travelling Double Ross will find the race run to suit on Saturday to swerve him too. Medermit ran a respectable race at Wetherby last time and is entitled to come on for the run after six months off, but has upwards of a stone to find to be involved with the principles and even if he were to return to his best form would have place claims but probably no more.
The 2014 Betfair Chase rightly revolves around Cue Card. As when Sprinter Sacre hopefully returns at Sandown in a few weeks' time, plenty will just be hoping that they show some of the old spark. However, unlike at Sandown where Sprinter is likely to go off at prohibitive odds, we have the chance to back Cue Card at a reasonable price. The advice is to do so, so that any feelings of unbridled joy at seeing a top-class horse back to his best are enhanced by the warming glow of significant remuneration come Saturday afternoon.
Back Cue Card in the Betfair Chase at 4.216/5