There were a few raised eyebrows when the Celebration Chase at Sandown was promoted to Grade 1 status five years ago, with the essay on Sire de Grugy - the winner at 7/2-on - in Chasers & Hurdlers 2013/14 questioning whether the upgrade had been merited, especially with Punchestown's Champion Chase invariably taking place just days before/after.
"There are simply not enough Grade 1-standard two-mile chasers in Britain and Ireland to warrant two races for them just days apart," the essay explained. "It seems inevitable that either both races are left with fields lacking strength in depth, or, if one of them does attract a good-quality line-up, the other will be left with a poor one."
Four further renewals have now taken place, and, by and large, that line of thought has proved correct. The 2016 edition of the Celebration Chase was a notable exception - Sprinter Sacre ran to a Timeform rating of 179 in beating the top-class Un de Sceaux by 15 lengths, with two other former winners of the Champion Chase, Dodging Bullets and Sire de Grugy, completing the frame - but the last two renewals have produced sub-standard fields on the whole, with Altior not needing to be at his very best to justify odds of 100/30-on and 11/2-on. He faced only five opponents and was 15 lb clear on weight-adjusted ratings going into last year's race, with the likes of Douvan, Min and Un de Sceaux all heading to Punchestown instead.
Timeform's highest-rated chaser in training, Altior will take his winning run to 19 - and break the record of Big Buck's for most successive wins over jumps - if managing to land this race for the third time on Saturday. The victory that saw him equal the record came in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham (for the second consecutive year, by a length and three quarters from Politologue) last month, when he won despite being some way below his best on the day. Pounced upon at the last, the way he rallied to regain the lead and assert up the hill (typically found plenty) demonstrated just why he is so hard to beat, and he looks sure to take all the beating once again here, before potentially stepping up in trip next season.
The chief danger to Altior would appear to be Cyrname, whose presence in the line-up makes this a Grade 1 in every sense of the word, much more like the one won by Sprinter Sacre in 2016. Paul Nicholls' charge showed himself to be a top-class performer when landing the Ascot Chase by 17 lengths in February, making all the running and doing to a field of Grade 1 winners what he'd done to smart handicappers over the same C&D the previous month. Officially rated 3 lb superior to Altior on the back of that, we have the defending champion much further in front - 7 lb to be precise - but it still promises to be a fascinating clash, provided sufficient rain arrives for Cyrname to be allowed to take his chance (considered best with ease underfoot). Nicholls is also responsible for San Benedeto and Diego du Charmil, who finished second and fifth, respectively, behind Altior in this race 12 months ago, and Dolos, who has some very smart C&D form to his name in handicaps but has come up short on his previous starts in graded company. A similar fate is likely to await all three of them here.
Further strength in depth is instead added by Sceau Royal, who traded as low as 1.6 in-running when produced to lead at the final fence of the Champion Chase. In the event, he weakened on the climb to the line to be beaten three and a half lengths in third, but that still represented a career-best effort and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that he could yet have an even bigger performance in the locker, only a seven-year-old after all. He will obviously need to improve, given that Altior wasn't even at his best last time, but the way that he is ridden makes him a solid place proposition, with the potential for better if Altior and Cyrname get embroiled in a battle from a long way out.
God's Own shaped better than the bare result in the Champion Chase, looking likely to finish fourth or fifth before being struck into and pulled up rapidly before the last. He has since finished well held in the Melling Chase at Aintree, however, and the balance of his form suggests that he is no longer the force who won Grade 1s either side of Sprinter Sacre's Sandown victory in the spring of 2016, including Punchestown's Champion Chase. Stablemate Bun Doran produced a career-best effort when second in the Grand Annual at Cheltenham last time, but that form is still some 22 lb shy of the level Altior has achieved, summing up the task he faces in this sort of company. The remaining four entries - Darebin, Gino Trail, Marracudja and Vosne Romanee - all have even more to find.
In conclusion, this looks rather less one-sided than the two previous renewals of this race won by Altior, but he still appeals as the likeliest winner, with the 'p' attached to his rating denoting that he may yet prove capable of better when the situation demands it. Nicky Henderson's charge isn't much of a betting proposition at long odds-on, though, and a small each-way bet on Sceau Royal could be the way to go instead; he gave the favourite a real fright at Cheltenham and looks best placed to pick up the pieces should Altior and Cyrname push each other into doing too much too soon, with a return of sorts almost guaranteed provided at least eight go to post.