Clan des Obeaux was an impressive winner of the Boxing Day highlight 12 months ago and returns this year attempting to follow in the footsteps of See More Business, Kauto Star and Silviniaco Conti, all of whom won multiple renewals of the race for Paul Nicholls. However, he will have to fend off the challenge of another stablemate in the shape of Cyrname, the highest-rated chaser in training who arrives right at the top of his game.
Most impressive on his final two starts of last season, Cyrname confirmed himself a top-class chaser when following up on his return (and first run since a breathing operation) in the 1965 Chase at Ascot last month, tanking along in front and again jumping superbly as he ended Altior's long winning sequence over jumps. Cyrname looks tailor-made for this race, his style of racing likely to be well suited to three miles round this sharp track, and it will take a performance right out of the top drawer to beat him if he gets his own way out in front.
Meanwhile, Clan des Obeaux shaped with plenty of promise after seven months off when four lengths second to Road To Respect in the Champion Chase at Down Royal last time, travelling and jumping with typical fluency before his lack of a recent outing seemingly began to tell. He seems to have been around a long time, but is still only seven, and will remain a fixture in all the big staying chases this season.
The one horse who could throw a spanner in the works for the Nicholls duo is undoubtedly Lostintranslation, a high-class novice chaser last season who identified himself as a potentially dominant force in this division when landing the Betfair Chase at Haydock last time. He was well backed and put in a top-class performance to lower the colours of Bristol de Mai - the winner of the two previous renewals - on that occasion, coming through late under a confident ride to win by a length and a half. Lostintranslation again barely put a foot wrong over the 19 fences, his fine jumping fast becoming a hallmark, and there should still be better to come from him as a chaser.
Away from the three that dominate the betting, Footpad makes some appeal if returning to the top-class form he showed as a novice in 2017/18, with his five wins that season including the Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival. Admittedly, Willie Mullins' charge struggled to make an impact in three starts last season, but he looked a horse back on the up when winning a listed event at Thurles on his return, not needing to be at his best but leaving the impression that all his ability remains. Footpad is yet to race at three miles over fences, but there is no worry about the trip round here, and he will be an interesting addition to an already fascinating contest.
Similar comments apply to Thistlecrack, who will be running in this race for the fourth year in succession. He could hardly have been more impressive when winning at the first attempt in his novice season, but problems have limited him to only seven starts in the intervening period, with his two subsequent runs in this race yielding a fourth in 2017/18 and a second last season. He proved his well-being when running Paisley Park close in the Long Distance Hurdle on his return at Newbury last time, and remains relatively lightly-raced for an 11-year-old, particularly over fences.
In summary, the absence of Altior points to Cyrname and Lostintranslation being the pair to focus on here, with marginal preference for the former given how this race is likely to develop. Indeed, a small field is seemingly on the cards, and Paul Nicholls' charge could take some pegging back if getting into a rhythm on the front end, especially if Lostintranslation is ridden in the same manner as he was at Haydock.