Tony McFadden tries to make sense of this year's Ryanair Chase and recommends a small bet at a big price...
Whilst most would not go so far as Flemenstar's connections and label the Ryanair Chase as a 'non-entity', there is undoubtedly a feeling that the race, contested over the intermediate distance of 21 furlongs, very much plays second-fiddle to the meeting's two feature steeplechases, the Champion Chase and the Gold Cup; many even suggest that it detracts from those main events.
It is perhaps apt that a race which has attracted such criticism is sponsored by Ryanair, the ultra-affordable but utterly-detested budget airline. In fact, a cursory Google-search of the sponsor's name reveals 'Ihateryanair' and 'Ryanaircampaign', websites which are solely devoted to detailing negative stories involving the company. In the interest of balance, I should point out that there is also a 'Ryanair Fan Club', though, admittedly, that site does take a bit more finding.
Despite the race being criticised, the enveloping shadow cast by Sprinter Sacre in the Champion Chase will, rightly or wrongly, deter a fair few from trying their luck in the two-mile feature and it could mean that the Ryanair becomes a race of greater quality this year as genuine top-notchers crash the party.
It is the unknown running plans of Sizing Europe and Finian's Rainbow that really make this a minefield of an ante-post race. Both are top-class horses and have demonstrated their speed by winning the Champion Chase, but they certainly don't lack for stamina and have had few problems scoring over two-and-a-half miles, the latter doing so in Grade 1 company at Aintree last year. But, when dealing with value from an ante-post perspective, it is important to remember that you are essentially backing a double: the horse to turn up in the correct race and then to win. In my view at least, the current prices on offer don't fully take into account the prospect of the horses running elsewhere and it may be a shrewder move to wait until the day, albeit having to take a shorter price. Finian's Rainbow would be especially interesting if permitted to take his chance.
Having shaped much better than the bare result would imply in the King George, where he faded in the closing stages to finish fourth after jumping and travelling with real verve, Champion Court tops many shortlists. Boasting a good record at the track, Martin Keighley's stable star looks ideally suited to the demands of the Ryanair Chase, where the drop back in trip will be to his advantage. However, he is likely to have a bit to find on Timeform ratings and, as a solid, consistent chaser possibly just shy of top class, is the sort of horse I would be happier taking a shorter price about on the day knowing the strength of the opposition as opposed to taking the current price of 11.010/1 and needing the elite horses to defect.
In spite of being bred to stay three miles, Cue Card probably didn't relish the trip in the King George and is likely to step back in distance. In most years connections might be keen to target the Champion Chase with a horse that was second in the Arkle, but the presence of Sprinter Sacre, his conqueror last March, might be enough to persuade them to tackle the Ryanair instead. He has a good record at the Festival and should have few problems getting the 21-furlong trip, but, given his Boxing Day demise, you might have expected a bigger price than the 8.27/1 currently on offer.
Menorah avoided mistakes at Kempton to land the rescheduled Peterborough Chase, but jumping errors have often blighted his progress over fences and, while better ground will suit, his inconsistency is a bit of a worry at the top level. However, his price of 18.017/1 takes these concerns into account and it is probably unwise to be too pessimistic about a dual-Grade 1 winner that has scored at the Festival.
Flemenstar heads the market with most bookies, but unsurprisingly, taking connections' comments into account, he is trading at a bigger price on the exchanges, reflecting the doubts about his participation. His effort in the Lexus Chase has led people to question his stamina but, while he would clearly be a massive player if allowed to take his chance in the Ryanair, it would appear that the Gold Cup remains the most likely target, with a mouth-watering clash against Sprinter Sacre in the Champion Chase the back-up option should he fail in the Irish Hennessy.
Carrying the colours of Giggingstown House Stud, the powerful operation owned by Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary, First Lieutenant would be entitled to enormous respect if lining up. He has peaked at the Festival in the past two seasons, producing considerable season-best performances on both occasions, and seems to relish the decent surface that Cheltenham invariably provide in March. But could you see his modest owner really wanting to scoop his own prize, leading the horse back in to a mobbed winners' enclosure and revelling in the ensuing publicity? OK, the guy would probably love nothing more, but First Lieutenant's trainer, Mouse Morris, seems determined to target him at the Gold Cup and that will probably be where he ends up.
Unless you hold a strong view regarding the destination of Flemenstar, Finian's Rainbow and Sizing Europe, it is probably wise to approach this year's Ryanair Chase with a great deal of trepidation. Taking a chance on a horse at a massive price that is likely to shorten on the back of a decent preparation could be the best play at this stage.
Well beaten behind Riverside Theatre last year as a 5-1 second favourite, Somersby is something of a forgotten horse, not seen out this season for new trainer Mick Channon. An entry in the Victor Chandler Chase, however, appears to indicate that his return is not too far away and it should be remembered that he actually won at Ascot last year, beating Finian's Rainbow and Al Ferof of all horses. In terms of bare form, the very best of Somersby's efforts have come at Ascot and, considering how plenty of horses have improved for the move from Knight to Channon this season, it wouldn't be a great surprise were he to put up a bold show on his seasonal reappearance. Clearly, his prospects of overturning Sprinter Sacre look extremely slim, but even finishing second at a respectable distance would be enough to see his current price of 60.059/1 for the Ryanair shorten significantly, such is the esteem in which Henderson's superstar is held.
Just to be clear, I am not saying that Somersby is one of the likelier winners of the Ryanair, but at this stage, more than two months prior to the event, we are looking for a horse that has the potential to start at a significantly shorter price, offering us a bit of value and the chance to trade, and I believe Somersby fits the bill. He is a top-class chaser, due to reappear in the race he has produced his two career-best efforts, and, though seemingly around forever, is still only a nine-year-old and capable of reproducing his best.
Back Somersby @ 60.059/1 in the Ryanair Chase