Four Grade 1 winners face off at Down Royal
Gerri Colombe dominates the market
Kevin thinks any one of three can beat GC
The National Hunt season is really starting to roll now and we reach another milestone at Down Royal on Saturday with the first Grade 1 of the Irish season.
The Ladbrokes Champion Chase at 14:20 may represent a microcosm of top level Irish National Hunt having attracted just four runners and two trainers, but all of the runners are Grade 1 winners and they combine to produce a really intriguing contest on paper.
Unlucky to get Whacked at Cheltenham?
The key horse here and the one that dominates the market is the Gordon Elliott-trained Gerri Colombe. Last season saw the seven-year-old progress from something of a dark horse into one of the better staying novice chasers in training. He won four of his five starts, with his only defeat being an agonising short-head defeat at the hoofs of The Real Whacker in the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
That performance has been the subject of much discussion, with the widespread interpretation being that Gerri Colombe was an unfortunate loser. He had hit something of a flat spot after the third-last fence on his previous start in the Scilly Isles Novices prior to ultimately winning with authority. But at Cheltenham Gerri Colombe was more notably flatfooted, making no great progress from the third-last fence until halfway up the run-in where his stamina really kicked in and he ran The Real Whacker down to a short-head.
The general perception seemed to be that Gerri Colombe was the best horse in that race, but just didn't get the result on the day. That perception is summed up by the fact that Gerri Colombe is currently 6/17.00 second favourite for the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival whereas his conqueror The Real Whacker is a 20/1 shot.
However, I wouldn't be on board with that read of what transpired. For me, The Real Whacker seemed to be idling in front. Indeed, he had been notably idle in front in each of his two previous wins over fences at Cheltenham.
When one watches the finish of the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase with that in mind, one notices The Real Whacker picking up again when he catches sight of Gerri Colombe in the dying strides and they stayed pretty much locked together in the strides after the line. Thus, I wouldn't be nearly as sure that Gerri Colombe was the best horse in the race on the day as many are.
Of course, that wasn't the last we saw of Gerri Colombe last season as he rolled onto Aintree and produced perhaps his most impressive effort over fences, winning the Mildmay Novices' Chase in great style. He looked sharper that day, travelling better and not hitting a flat spot as had at Sandown and Cheltenham.
Market is overconfident about Gerri Colombe
That's what we've seen from Gerri Colombe so far, but what about what we are likely to see on Saturday? The collective wisdom of the market clearly rates Gerri Colombe quite highly based on his lofty position in the market for the Gold Cup and his short price in the market for this race.
They might well prove to be right in the fullness of time, but I can't help but feel that the market may be getting ahead of his achievements to date.
As well as not being entirely convinced about how unlucky he was in the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase, I'm just not sold that his overall form entitles him to be an odds-on shot against three race fit open Grade 1 winners. Bar The Real Whacker, I find it hard to envisage anything that he beat last season being remotely competitive in open Grade 1 company this season.
Another factor that hasn't been mentioned much with him is that he has shown a tendency to jump a bit to his left over fences thus far. It hasn't held him back so far, indeed he is unbeaten in three starts over fences when racing right-handed, but it is often only when horses step up into deeper company that these little kinks can become a problem.
Race fit rivals will test favourite
More pertinently, Gerri Colombe's credentials and race fitness will be tested by his three rivals, all of whom are winners of open Grade 1 races that will have the benefit of race fitness on their side on Saturday.
Minella Indo almost certainly isn't quite the horse he was when winning the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival in 2021, but he showed that the fire still burns when making a winning return at Punchestown last month. He seems sure to improve from that and isn't one to sleep on.
An even more notable danger to Gerri Colombe might well be Envoi Allen, who will be ridden by Betfair ambassador Rachael Blackmore, an eight-time Grade 1 winner that won this race and the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last season. He hasn't been the easiest horse to predict in recent seasons, but he seems sure to improve from his seasonal reappearance at Gowran Park in September.
Conflated is biggest danger
While Conflated was disappointing on his return to action behind Minella Indo at Punchestown, it is worth remembering how big of a step forward he took from his seasonal return when going on to win the Savills Chase on his second start of last season. He drove on from there and ran a stormer when third in the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival when not getting the clearest of runs. I would rate him as the biggest danger of all to Gerri Colombe.
However, the beauty of this game is that we don't have to pick one to beat Gerri Colombe, we can log onto the Betfair Exchange and have the whole field running for us by laying Gerri Colombe. That appeals as being the value play in the race.
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