As with so many of the major races at the Cheltenham Festival, Willie Mullins looks to hold the key to the Ryanair Chase.
Mullins has seven horses entered. Of those, Chacun Pour Soi is bound for the Champion Chase, while - hopefully, as this column has tipped them for other races - Kemboy and Cilaos Emery look likely to take their chance elsewhere. That still leaves Mullins with Min, Melon and Allaho at his service, and the trio clearly all hold serious claims.
Min is out to defend his title. He won narrowly a year ago, from Saint Calvados, after finishing second in a Supreme and a Champion Chase in his younger days. Min has run twice this season, landing a farcical John Durkan in thick fog at Punchestown and being pulled up after shouldering the seventh, against Chacun Pour Soi at Leopardstown.
Min seems likely to bounce back, though whether his chance is any better than Saint Calvados's is doubtful. Last year's runner-up has also been out twice this season, running a lot better than the result when fifth in the King George and then unseating rider before he'd been asked for his effort in the Cotswold Chase at Sandown. Saint Calvados is still in the Gold Cup, but the Ryanair looks a much more suitable target.
Allaho faces sterner test than Thurles
Allaho, currently favourite on the Betfair Exchange ahead of Min, has finished third in two Cheltenham Festival appearances, behind Minella Indo in the 2019 Albert Bartlett and behind Champ and Minella Indo in the RSA Chase in 2020. He travelled strongly in front and largely jumped well in the latter, just outstayed late in the day, as he had been the year previously.
This winter, Allaho has been out three times, lost in the fog at Punchestown behind Min on the first occasion, then winning in less demanding company at Thurles on the last. Only the runner-up Elimay was in the same parish by the finish, and although she upheld the form when winning next time, it's hard to think Allaho deserves to be favourite on that performance. This shorter trip may well be what he wants, though.
Melon: Fifth time lucky?
In between those two runs Allaho was fourth in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown. Perhaps he was working his way back to form, but he finished a long way behind Melon, who was third home. Melon had also run in the John Durkan on his reappearance, taking third there too. In the Savills, Melon had pressed on too soon after typically tanking along, but his performance still makes him just about the pick of the likely Ryanair runners on form this season. He'll have no issue dropping back in trip.
Melon has disappointed in the Irish Gold Cup since, but he's done so at that meeting before and bounced back at Cheltenham. Indeed, his Cheltenham record, second at the meeting four years running, is even better than Min's. Last season, he was beaten on the nod by Samcro in a thrilling finish to the Marsh Novices' Chase, his jumping that day impressive until he was organised at the last.
Recency bias certainly looks a factor in the current Ryanair market, so far as this trio are concerned, and at 11.010/1 Melon looks the one to side with.
It's worth pointing out that he's gone off at 20/1 and 14/1 at the last two Cheltenham Festivals after below-par efforts at the Dublin Racing Festival.
Imperial Aura: Progressive sort but needs to improve further
So far as the British challenge for the race is concerned, Saint Calvados, mentioned earlier, has Imperial Aura and Mister Fisher for support.
Imperial Aura is very likeable and he won the novice handicap at the Festival last March. That is a strong piece of form and he followed up in non-handicap company on his first two starts this season. However, it's hard to see either of those races as having much substance and this will be a significantly sterner test of his abilities.
Mister Fisher looked good when winning the rescheduled Peterborough Chase at Cheltenham in December and may be capable of better still. However, he has a fair distance to make up on Melon on their running in the Marsh last season and is barely at much longer odds.
Samcro, who beat the pair of them and would be looking for a third Festival victory, hasn't looked himself in two outings this season, running badly in the Savills Chase on the second occasion. He holds four entries at Cheltenham, including in the Plate, which isn't exactly encouraging.
Fakir: Return to longer trip the key to his chance
That covers seven of the eight horses currently trading below 20.0 on the Betfair Exchange. The other is Fakir d'Oudaires. Like Samcro, he was pulled up in the Savills Chase, but he has bounced back subsequently, chasing home Chacun Pour Soi back at around two miles. He was done for foot at the last after travelling smoothly that day, but stuck on well on the run-in. That run clearly suggested the Ryanair as a better option for him than the Champion Chase.
Fakir d'Oudaries is another with a good Festival record, finishing fourth in the Supreme as a juvenile and runner-up in last season's Arkle. His jumping wasn't quite as slick as it might have been in the Arkle, which is enough to give Melon the nod as the best option at the current prices.
There's a case to be made for all the eight mentioned, though Samcro is hard to recommend on this season's efforts. The race is likely to be well run, which would help Saint Calvados, as it did last season.
That said, despite a good gallop being the norm in the race, prominent racers have won the vast majority of the runnings of the Ryanair. With so many having good records at the meeting as well, a fascinating contest looks in store.