Last year's winner Protektorat is favourite
Nicholls' Bravemansgame is better horse
Six-way Haydock battle would be thrilling contest
During WWII the British, presumably the men, coined a cutting saying that they had no problem with the American soldiers being stationed in the UK apart from the fact they were "oversexed, overpaid... and over here."
That phrase jumped into my head when looking at the Betfair Chase confirmations on Monday, with the big guns from the Irish staying ranks, currently headed by Galopin Des Champs and Gerri Colombe, staying at home, thus giving the domestic contingent the chance to mop up the big bucks of Haydock's 200k Grade 1 Betfair Chase at 15:00.
We had 15 in the race before Monday's confirmation stage but we have lost the Irish contingent of 2021 winner A Plus Tard, Conflated, Envoi Allen, Gerri Colombe and Minella Indo, as well as Ahoy Senor, Midnight River, L'Homme Presse and Galia des Liteaux, and we are down to six.
Actually, that intro doesn't work at all as I was very surprised to discover A Plus Tard in 2021 was the only Irish horse to win the Betfair Chase from its inception in 2005, kicked off by Kingscliff winning for Robert Alner.
A far cry from the regular raiding party's dominance at Cheltenham in March, in which they made the Vikings look merciful.
I was there that day in 2005 to see Kingscliff beat the Irish pair of Beef Or Salmon and the odds-on Kicking King, and, since Kauto Star embarked upon his path to racing immortality by dismissing Beef Or Salmon by 17 lengths the following year, the Emerald Isle travellers have been few and far between, and largely underwhelming to boot.
The absence of the two Gold Cup market leaders is obviously very much in the favour of last year's winner Protektorat then, and he has been shortening ever since Bravemansgame's defeat in the Charlie Hall. Protektorat now trades at 6/42.50 joint favourite with the Sportsbook and 2.6813/8 on the Betfair Exchange.
For once, the weather forecast in the lead-up to the big race isn't too bad at all.
Until Friday at least.
It is hardly tropical, but there is almost no rain due until about 13mm or so on Friday and Saturday (something all sites agree on).
Perhaps just as well it's a dry start to the week as the ground is currently heavy, soft in places, on the chase course.
I thought the soft would disappear after they got 9mm on Sunday, but apparently not.
Protektorat favourite to win Betfair Chase again
That scenario is commonly thought to be right up Protektorat's strasse, though he has actually been beaten on the two occasions he has raced on officially heavy ground, albeit the defeats came when he was a young pup in 2019.
His record on soft ground is hardly the stuff to have his rivals cowering either though, as that is just three from nine.
However, when he is good, he is very good, and a reproduction of his 11-length win in this race last year, and his victory in atrocious conditions at Aintree on Tingle Creek day in December 2021 (unsurprisingly Timeform called this heavy), justifiably sees him top the market in the likely weekend conditions for a race that has been inked in on his agenda since he finished fifth in the Gold Cup in March.
But perhaps by not as much as the betting suggests.
I think the fact that he is definitely going for the race on Saturday is playing a huge role in his ante-post price, as you would expect, admittedly. Granted, that is hardly telling you anything revolutionary.
Nor is this.
Dan Skelton is a tier-one operator, and you will hear plenty of comments about him being a superb target trainer in the lead-up to the race. And he is.
But so is every top-flight handler out there, let's be clear about that.
Indeed, I heard that description about Betfair ambassador Paul Nicholls after Stage Star's success on Saturday, just as we saw that label given to Nicky Henderson on Sunday, and basically every Irish trainer after a winner at the Festival.
So the fact that Skelton has probably had this race on his mind for eight months doesn't figure too highly on my case for Protektorat's chance.
After all, I distinctly remember reading he was fully primed for the Cotswold Chase in January, for which he went off a well-backed 5/42.25 chance, only for the talk afterwards to be rather different after he finished fourth.
Trainers are absolutely at their best when they have to react and adapt in the short term to disappointments.
Nicholls and Lucinda Russell certainly have to here, if Bravemansgame and Corach Rambler are allowed to take their chance and come out the other side on Saturday afternoon as the winner.
All looked to be going swimmingly for the first-named until a last-fence mistake in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby, and his 1.071/14 backers were crying into their ale a few seconds later.
Nicholls loves a challenge though and he knows he has a better horse than Protektorat in his care on the evidence of his 14-length defeat of Royale Pagaille in the King George, or indeed his Gold Cup second.
I initially wondered whether he would want to give himself five more weeks and get his horse primed for Kempton again rather than go to Haydock.
But Nicholls rarely runs away from a small field and easy wedge, especially with a horse with outstanding form claims.
Bravemansgame is now 3.185/40 on the Exchange and 6/42.50 joint favourite with the Sportsbook after being confirmed as a possible (if you can be confirmed as being a possible) for the race by the trainer on Monday morning.
He is a possible at this stage then, but Nicholls also stated the horse won't run if it is heavy. Daryl Jacob has been booked, as Harry Cobden is needed at Ascot for six rides, including Pic D'Orhy in the Grade 2 1965 Chase.
Personally, I can't see it being anything else other than heavy myself, so I'd hold fire on ante-post bets with him.
Watch Paul Nicholls' Ditcheat Diary
Russell has an even bigger job on her hands than Nicholls as her Grand National winner Corach Rambler was as underwhelming as he could have been on his return at Kelso last month.
And, even if he is coaxed back to his best, he is rated a mere 159 and has the thick-end of a stone to find with a peak-form Bravemansgame, Shishkin and Protektorat.
Of course, he was a massive coming force in the spring and he also needed his reappearance run badly in 2021 and 2022, but it really would be a hugely impressive effort from both horse and trainer to win this, far more so than winning here with a fresh horse off an uninterrupted prep and a smooth run.
He is 7/18.00 with the Sportsbook, but 12.011/1 on the exchange.
Apparently, this has been the plan for Shishkin ever since he came back in from summer grass, but will connections stick to it?
He is 3s with the Betfair Sportsbook but a weak 5.69/2 on the lightly-traded Exchange market as this column goes live.
In terms of talent, this boy is top of the ratings tree in here on his Clarence House defeat of Energumene in January 2022 and Henderson somehow coaxed this horse back to somewhere approaching that level after having looked gone at the game in the Champion Chase and Tingle Creek.
Now that was a training feat.
And he did so after a wind op and stepping him up in trip, proving his 3m1f stamina when winning at Aintree in April.
He is every bit as good as Bravemansgame at his best but is 3m1f125yd on heavy ground around Haydock his bag for his first start of the campaign?
Is he certain to run?
I'm told that remains marginally the plan, but trainers get cold feet.
Indeed, on Sunday, Henderson was talking in 50-50 terms about whether to run at Haydock or Ascot on Saturday, as he is also entered in the aforementioned 1965 Chase.
The better ground at Ascot (currently good to soft with a pretty dry week forecast) could see him stay in the south, for all he has a tremendous record on soft and heavy.
He has been matched as low of 3.8514/5 on the Exchange market, but he is weak at the moment with that double entry.
There have been mixed messages about when and where Royale Pagaille would start his season too, but this looks an eminently sensible option for a very valuable race that could cut up even further. We haven't seen him since he fell in the Irish National in April.
I know Rich Ricci isn't short of a few quid but there is easy money on offer here with £10,600 for fourth and £5,320 for fifth.
Royale Pagaille is clearly a notch below many of his potential rivals in the class stakes but conditions here could be a fair leveller, especially if more rain than is currently forecast lands. His two Peter Marsh wins off 11st 10lb here in very deep conditions mark him down as a very dangerous floater.
He is 9.417/2 on the Exchange and 7/18.00 on the Sportsbook.
And I hear Venetia Williams is the best target trainer out there....
Minella Drama's entry is perhaps a cute one given the good prize money down to sixth, and he ran well when second in the Old Roan on his return, but he is unproven beyond an extended 2m5f and he is seemingly outclassed, too.
He is a most unlikely winner, as his Sportsbook price of 40/141.00 suggests.
And, as he is also in the 1965 Chase over a far more suitable 2m5f at Ascot on Saturday (just six entries in that race too) he must be classed as an unlikely runner.
In summary, I hope they get a dry week and we are looking at largely soft by Saturday afternoon.
Because last year's champion (Protektorat) versus a King George victor and Gold Cup second (Bravemansgame) versus a six-time Grade 1 winner (Shishkin) versus the Grand National hero Corach Rambler, plus the slop monster Royale Pagaille, would be some race.
Keep those fingers crossed.
At this stage, the best bet in the race is arguably Protektorat at 2.6813/8 on the Exchange on running plans alone.
Though this could turn out to be the worst price currently available if the rain stays away (and actually the main weather site I use for forecasts has literally improved dramatically for Friday and Saturday as I was doing the final column check) and all six stand their ground!
No bet for now, then. Good luck.
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