If the Cheltenham Festival is racing's Olympic Games, then the Queen Mother Champion Chase is the Men's 100 metre final. This race is all about speed and all about power. There is no margin for error. For me, there's no better sight in sport than these amazing equine athletes soaring over fences at high speed.
It's produced some terrific performances of course down the years and some great battles. Who can forget Sprinter Sacre's fairytale comeback win in 2016? Or Viking Flagship, Travado and Deep Sensations three way tussle in 1994? Altior, rightly, dominates the market and has the invincible air of Usain Bolt about him. I can't wait for the starting gun.
Altior boasts flawless credentials and will go off the hottest favourite of the entire Festival. He won this race last year and the Arkle the year before. Prior to that he took the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, making him three from three at the Festival so far. He’s never been defeated over obstacles and has never looked in danger of being defeated. He’s added to that perfect profile by winning all the right prep races this season. Those looking for an Achilles heel will point to a couple of jumps to the left around right- handed Ascot last time out but master trainer Nicky Henderson described that as being “of no consequence whatsoever”. He is quite simply on a different level to any of his opponents and another clear round should secure another win.
Backing the previous year’s Arkle winner to take the Queen Mother Champion Chase is often the right way to go. Footpad was outstanding as a novice and the Arkle was the centrepiece of a flawless five timer over fences. His second season chasing has been much more of a mixed bag though. His jumping seemed to go to pieces on his Naas reappearance. It transpired that he had struck into himself in that race, something that he repeated next time out when collared late by the veteran Simply Ned. Willie Mullins says he’ll probably run without hind shoes to mitigate this tendency to overreach. For me though, the jury is now out on this horse and I’d be against him wherever he turns up.
Colin Tizzard did say that he would be keen to avoid Altior after Fox Norton was brushed aside by the reigning champ in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot. He did caveat that comment though by saying that if Altior frightened everyone else off they might “give it a go”. I can see why they’d be tempted. This horse was quick enough to place in the Arkle before being beaten just a head in the Champion Chase behind Special Tiara two years ago. He proved that run no fluke by taking the scalp of Un De Sceaux in the Punchestown Champion Chase to boot. His chances weren’t helped by a crucial mistake behind the sensational Cyrname last time out and he is something of a forgotten horse coming into the Festival. I think there’s a case for saying he’s overpriced for this and for the Ryanair. Obviously, he will only run in one of those races but if he turns up here I’d be interested in being with him.
Tom George’s eleven-year-old doesn’t know how to run a bad race at the Festival. He was an excellent second in the Arkle and since then has run 4th, 5th and 3rd in the Champion Chase. His proven Festival form makes him well worth considering in the without the favourite market, especially if the race cuts up. He’s likely to be held up off whatever pace is set and it’s not hard to see him passing horses late on and perhaps making his way into the frame once again.
Back in their novice hurdle days, Min got to within seven lengths of Altior in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. That seven-length margin of defeat was exactly replicated in last year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase and it’s hard to see why the outcome should be any closer this time around. Willie Mullins has told attheraces.com that a decision on Min’s target (he’s also entered in the Ryanair) will be made “much closer to the time”. Much will depend on what the Ryanair field looks like and what Ruby Walsh wants to ride in each case. His easy win in the Dublin Chase last time out shows that he’s as good as ever but his best has so far not been a match for the mighty Altior.
I’ve got a big soft spot for this horse. I love his enthusiasm and his quick and accurate jumping. I thought he was a deserved winner at Naas first time up when much of the focus was on the beaten favourite, Footpad. Since then he’s been brushed aside by both Altior and Min. Against that though has to be balanced the fact that this is his sole target at the Festival and he is still a lightly raced and potentially progressive horse. A line can be drawn through his Arkle run where jockey Aidan Coleman and Davy Russell (on Petit Mouchoir) employed tactics that military types would describe as “M.A.D” – mutually assured destruction. I’d love to see him run well and he may well do so. My fear though is that his running style will see him being passed by stronger finishers late on.
The Alan King-trained Sceau Royal is something of an enigma. He was a single figure price for the Triumph Hurdle a few years back but could manage only 12th of 15 on the day. He was not disgraced in the Champion Hurdle the following year behind Buveur D’Air but looked a shade below the top level there. As a novice chaser though he excelled, winning four of his five starts including the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown. This season’s campaign started well with a win at Cheltenham but he seemed to get stuck in the mud at Sandown next time out behind Altior. His prep run for the Festival came not over fences but over hurdles at Wincanton in the Kingwell where, somewhat disappointingly, he was beaten. His novice campaign and his relative youth means that there could be more to come and he does make some appeal at double-figure odds.
An absolute star of a horse who has danced every dance going but is likely to sit this one out. The Ryanair would seem to be a much more likely target for him. A lack of rain would see him doubtful for an outing at all perhaps.
The ‘without the favourite’ market is definitely my favoured option in this race. Bookmakers tend to simply apply a standardised reduction to their normal outright prices and that can provide good punting opportunities. Couple that with the fact that the race may well cut up considerably and I think it’s well worth getting involved ante post. Because the non-runner no bet concession does not normally apply to ante post bets on the without the favourite market I would focus at this stage on horses with no other options. Top of that list has to be GOD’S OWN. But for jumping errors in 2017 he would have placed in the last two renewals. He can be backed each-way at 20/1 with Betfair Sportsbook and that looks too big. There’s no point risking him at this stage but if he turns up for race FOX NORTON would be another that I’d add to the portfolio as he’s likely to remain well overpriced.
Bet now: GOD’S OWN , each-way ‘without the favourite’ market. Bet day of race: FOX NORTON , each-way ‘without the favourite’ market.