Cheltenham - At The Races

14:50 Cheltenham 16 Mar 2017

Ryanair Chase (Grade 1) (Registered As The Festival Trophy) (Class 1) (5YO plus)

Winner £170,850 - 8 ran


2m 4f 166y

Good (Good to Soft in places)

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Weighed In

Runner Profiles

    Andy Gibson's horse-by-horse guide.
  • Friday 03 March 2017
  • Runner Profiles

The 2017 Ryanair Chase appears to be a very open contest between five or six main contenders. At this point in time Sizing John appears most likely to head for the Gold Cup despite having an awful lot in his favour for this two mile five contest. The strong favourite is Un De Sceaux and, although he holds reasonable claims, he probably has a lot more to prove compared with a few other festival favourites.

Horse profiles

Empire Of Dirt (IRE)

  • 10-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Westerner - Rose Of Inchiquin (Roselier)
  • Trained by: G Elliott
  • Last Race: Aintree, 6 Apr 2017 14:50
  • Result: PU/7, in rear, headway before 10th, pushed along and weakened from 14th, pulled up before 3 out
  • View full form

He is a late addition to the Ryanair Chase and has been strongly supported in the betting since his second place finish behind Sizing John in the Irish Gold Cup. On that last day he was a bit short of room approaching the last fence and could possibly have gone even closer but for that. He heads for the Ryanair Chase on the back of that positive run plus has an all-important festival victory to his name. His Irish Gold Cup effort will have little to do with what he will face in the Ryanair; however, the fact that he won the handicap chase at the festival on the new course last season is of much more interest and is massively in his favour.

I remember listening to his jockey after Empire Of Dirt had won the Brown Advisory and Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival. Brian Cooper said he started off much further back than he wanted to in that competitive handicap. Maybe it played to his advantage the way the race was run. He made late headway to take it up after the turn for home and won with plenty to spare looking like a classy horse in the process. I suspected at the time that the fact that he started off down the field possibly disguised the extent of his superiority over his rivals.

I suppose that the obvious negative with Empire Of Dirt is that he is a 10-year-old and competing at the highest level for only the second time. One of the main reasons for this late flourish to his career is due to him taking a long time to get his act together in the jumping department. Nonetheless, the fact that he has generally performed well in that area in each of his latest four chases is very reassuring. Empire Of Dirt has a lot going for him in the Ryanair Chase and has clearly one of the strongest profiles for this race.

Video Form
12 Feb 2017:
27 Nov 2016:
17 Jan 2016:
27 Dec 2015:
6 Dec 2015:

Fox Norton (FR)

  • 7-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Lando - Natt Musik (Kendor)
  • Trained by: C L Tizzard
  • Last Race: Punchestown, 25 Apr 2017 17:30
  • Result: Won/8, soon raced in 4th, mainly 3rd after 4th, slight mistake 5th, not fluent 3 out and pushed along, challenged before last, led and stayed on best from early run-in
  • View full form

The success of Sizing John in the Irish Gold Cup has cast some doubts regarding the participation of Fox Norton in the Champion Chase. Both horses share the same owner and if Sizing John heads down the Gold Cup route (which seems the most likely scenario) then this might open the door for a possible switch to the Ryanair Chase for Fox Norton. The fact that the Tizzards stated their possible preference for the longer race adds some substance to this possibility.

One can understand any trainer not looking forward to the prospect of taking on Douvan with one of their stable stars. Although he will be fighting for second place only in the shorter race assuming Douvan completes the course without mishap; there is nothing in his profile to suggest that the challenges he would face in a Ryanair Chase would show him in his best light. I understand that he was running on up the hill in the 2016 Arkle Chase; nonetheless, he was really just going past beaten horses and was never in danger of troubling the first two horses home. This is a world of difference from suggesting that he will, therefore, be suited to competing over an extra five furlongs.

Hopefully, Fox Norton will take his place in the Champion Chase line-up and, if he does, he should run well and has a strong chance of finishing in the first three or four places. In the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase last time out he ran perfectly okay on ground that would have been softer than ideal. He was simply outclassed by the winner Altior as every other two miler in training would be aside from probably Douvan. I think that the comprehensive nature of this defeat could easily have played a part in turning minds to a possible tilt at the Ryanair Chase for Fox Norton.

Video Form
25 Apr 2017:
30 Jan 2016:
17 Feb 2015:

Josses Hill (IRE)

  • 9-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Winged Love - Credora Storm (Glacial Storm)
  • Trained by: N J Henderson
  • Last Race: Sandown, 29 Apr 2017 14:25
  • Result: 3/6, jumped slowly 1st and 2nd, led narrowly before next, headed 15th (water), outpaced before 3 out, soon no chance with winner, lost 2nd after next, well beaten
  • View full form

The last time we saw Josses Hill was in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day. He ran well for a long way in that hot contest and probably failed to last home over the three miles. This was his first try over that sort of distance and, although he did appear to run out of stamina at Kempton; I would not want to be too categorical on that score with just that one piece of evidence to consider.

On his previous start in the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon he put in a surprisingly classy round of jumping for a horse that has had more than his fair share of problems negotiating the larger obstacles. The time of that grade two contest suggested that this was a proper test of stamina on good ground, which is his ideal surface. This was probably Josses Hill’s Gold Cup as the second horse home, Tea For Two, prefers a softer surface, the third to finish, More Of That, had been disappointing and the fourth, Dodging Bullets, did not stay the trip.

In the 2016 Ryanair Chase he jumped well in the main which was a mild surprise to me as I have long felt that he requires a right-handed track to be seen in his best light. His form when competing on right handed courses over fences reads: 2 2 F 1 1 1 5 – whilst he has a record of 1 3 4 8 – on left-handed tracks. Consequently, I do not think those respective form figures can be used as compelling evidence to support this notion. It is much more about the way he jumps his fences that has led to my belief that he is best going right-handed. The fact that he jumped well in the 2016 renewal of this contest and was still only able to finish a well beaten eighth does not auger well for his claims in the 2017 Ryanair Chase.

Josses Hill is a decent horse in his own right and has performed much better over the larger obstacles this season. If he can take that improvement into the Cheltenham Festival he will hold some sort of chance of finishing in the first few in the Ryanair.

Video Form
9 Jan 2015:

Sizing John (GB)

  • 7-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Midnight Legend - La Perrotine (Northern Crystal)
  • Trained by: Mrs J Harrington
  • Last Race: Punchestown, 26 Apr 2017 17:30
  • Result: Won/6, held up in last, closer in 4th halfway, ridden in 3rd after 3 out, close 3rd when mistake 2 out, soon 2nd, improved to dispute lead at last, stayed on well run-in and edged ahead close home
  • View full form

I think that it is fair to say that, but for the presence of Douvan the Alan Potts-owned Sizing John form figures might well read: 1 1 1 2 1 1 1 1 1 3 2 1 1 1 – which would be the profile of a champion. He has outstanding form at the previous two Cheltenham Festivals; he is versatile regarding ground and has posted an excellent time in a high-class two and a half mile contest at Thurles beating a short-priced favourite in Sub Lieutenant with very solid form.

Sizing John followed up that Thurles success with a narrow victory over Empire Of Dirt and Don Poli. It is likely that Sizing John will go for the Gold Cup instead of the Ryanair and I suspect his Irish Gold Cup form still leaves him with plenty to find to be dangerous in the longer race. Consequently, I would rather see him take on Un De Sceaux and Uxizandre rather than Cue Card, Djakadam and Native River.

In the last two seasons Sizing John has run over the Christmas period and enjoyed a long break before performing to a high level at each of the latest two Cheltenham Festivals. Hopefully he will be okay in March on the back of a fairly recent run; nevertheless, he is yet to prove it. Therefore, it does add one minor question mark against his festival claims which needs to be borne in mind when assessing his appropriate place in the market whichever race he lines up in.

The other question he has to answer is of course whether or not he has the required stamina for the Gold Cup trip. The fact that he was able to narrowly win a slowly-run Irish Gold Cup run on testing ground has little bearing on what will be required to succeed in a fast run Gold Cup, more than likely, run on a much quicker surface. Sizing John may be okay and indeed could improve for the longer trip; nonetheless, unlike two of his Main Gold Cup rivals, he is yet to prove it on the racecourse.

Video Form
26 Apr 2017:
12 Feb 2017:
19 Jan 2017:
27 Dec 2016:
28 Apr 2016:

Sub Lieutenant (IRE)

  • 8-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Brian Boru - Satellite Dancer (Satco)
  • Trained by: H de Bromhead
  • Last Race: Aintree, 7 Apr 2017 15:25
  • Result: 2/9, prominent, led before 9th, headed 11th, led next, ridden and headed 2 out, no impression on winner before last, stayed on, eased close home
  • View full form

His form has looked very strong this season and he put up another solid display when chasing home Sizing John in the Grade 3 Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles. It would be difficult to see him reversing this form at Cheltenham given the winner’s experience at the festival in March; that said he looks well worth his place in the line-up, will hold strong claims of finishing in the first three or four and is as likely as most of his rivals to take advantage in the likely event of Sizing John ‘going for gold’.

In the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown in early December Sub Lieutenant travelled like the second best horse for most of this Grade 1 contest. He kept his chances alive with a fast and fluent leap at the second last obstacle but his dwindling claims were ended with a mistake at the last fence. He was not given a hard time of it from thereon in compared with the runner up, Outlander, or indeed Djakadam who won the race.

Sub Lieutenant had won his first two chases of the season and, in the second of them took the Titanic Belfast Chase on good ground at Down Royal in early November. He pushed the pace alongside the Paul Nicholls trained Le Mercurey that day and jumped and travelled like the best horse all the way. He was pushed out to win with plenty to spare and this was the first real sign that he might have improved since his novice chase season.

I suppose this improvement could be something to do with him moving to Henry de Bromhead’s yard – time will tell on that score. The fact that his new trainer won both the big races on that Down Royal card might indicate that de Bromhead simply had his horses more readied than a few other yards at that early point in the season. That said I thought at the time that the way Sub Lieutenant travelled through his races on his first two starts this season was very encouraging. In addition his ability to act well on decent ground augers well for his Ryanair Chase chances.

The three horses that Sub Lieutenant has finished just behind in his latest two chases are Sizing John, Outlander and Djakadam. The fact that they are all currently trading at single figure prices for the Gold Cup implies that Sub Lieutenant could well be significantly overpriced at 12/1 (and 10/1 NRNB) in a Ryanair Chase that appears to be less competitive than the Blue Riband event on the final day of the festival.

Video Form
19 Jan 2017:
11 Dec 2016:
5 Nov 2016:
9 Oct 2016:
26 Apr 2016:

Un De Sceaux (FR)

  • 9-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Denham Red - Hotesse De Sceaux (April Night)
  • Trained by: W P Mullins
  • Last Race: Punchestown, 25 Apr 2017 17:30
  • Result: 2/8, close up, led before 5th, ridden after 2 out, pressed from before last, headed and kept on same pace from early run-in
  • View full form

This Willie Mullins gelding is currently trading around 3/1 favourite for the Ryanair Chase and has been as short as 5/2 with a couple of firms. This is despite the fact that he has yet to prove his stamina for this extended two and a half mile trip whilst competing in Ireland or England. Clearly, his current odds have more than a little to do with the name of his trainer and jockey. He has won over the Ryanair Chase distance when competing at Auteuil; however, in my experience stamina limitations of horses can appear to be very different when comparing French and British form. The only time that Un De Sceaux has competed over a trip beyond circa two miles was at Thurles in November 2014 when he fell too far out to hold any view as to what might have happened.

I often prefer to tend towards horses with previous festival form to their name and, therefore, the fact that Un De Sceaux has finished first and second at the previous two Cheltenham Festivals is a major point in his favour. I think it is fair to say that he found the ground faster than ideal in the 2016 Champion Chase. His relative lack of pace was ruthlessly exposed by Sprinter Sacre on the approach to the second last fence on that occasion. To his credit Un De Sceaux stayed on strongly again up the hill to snatch back second spot close to the line.

Given the nature of that performance one can completely understand why his connections have decided to head down the Ryanair Chase route. Just because Un De Sceaux was staying on strongly over two miles, however, does not automatically mean that he will stay an extra five furlongs; particularly as the Ryanair Chase is run on the more demanding new course.

Perhaps the main reason for Un De Sceaux stepping up in trip is due to the presence of his stable companion Douvan at the head of the Champion Chase market. After all, despite plenty of reservations with regards his Ryanair claims; Un De Sceaux still has more chance of winning the Ryanair Chase than of finishing ahead of Douvan in the shorter race.

Un De Sceaux has not scored very high marks in my ‘favourite ratings’. This is partly due to his price being artificially short based on the names of his close connections rather than anything he has achieved on the track. He will clearly hold strong claims of winning the Ryanair Chase if he is able to stay this extended distance; nonetheless, I hold sufficient doubts on that score to want to tend away from him rather than have him on my side at such a short price.

Video Form
25 Apr 2017:
27 Dec 2015:
30 Apr 2015:
25 Jan 2015:
20 Dec 2014:

Uxizandre (FR)

  • 9-y-o; chestnut gelding
  • Breeding: Fragrant Mix - Jolisandre (Dear Doctor)
  • Trained by: A King
  • Last Race: Aintree, 7 Apr 2017 15:25
  • Result: 8/9, led, tended to back off the early fences, headed 3rd, led 11th, headed next, weakened before 3 out, tailed off
  • View full form

The Clarence House Chase was rerouted to Cheltenham and was the race chosen for his long-awaited return. This Grade 1 contest could hardly have gone much better for Uxizandre after such a long absence. He was held up and jumped well aside from one bad mistake at the seventh fence. He made strong late headway to finish a running on second without being given too hard a time of it. The winner of the race was the current Ryanair Chase favourite Un De Sceaux who still has his stamina to prove for the Ryanair trip.

I remember AP McCoy saying that at half way in the 2015 Ryanair Chase he was going so fast he wondered if Uxizandre should have been aimed at the Champion Chase. I am not aware of any decision being made between the two races for this festival. As things stand the betting for the two events would suggest that the Ryanair Chase is Uxizandre’s more likely option.

If he does make it to the festival and lines up in the longer race he will not be ridden as passively as he was in his comeback race. Consequently, he has to be of interest in the Ryanair Chase at least as a ‘back to lay’ given the likelihood of him tearing off in front as he did in the 2015 renewal of the race. I strongly suspect that the visor he wore for the first time at the 2015 festival will be reapplied thus accentuating the likelihood of him being ridden very positively.

Video Form
27 Dec 2014:


Black Hercules has been most disappointing this season and it would be a major surprise to see him recapture his best form in this competitive affair. Conversely, he has two good festival runs under his belt which is the most significant point in his favour. Vroum Vroum Mag appears highly likely to go for another tilt at the Mares’ Hurdle on the opening day; whilst Djakadam is clearly destined to line-up in the Gold Cup. This would leave Zabana as the most likely outsider to perform well and outrun his price in the 2017 Ryanair Chase. He unseated his rider at the start when fancied to run well in the 2016 JLT Novices’ Chase and will hopefully give his connections a run for their money at worst here. He certainly has the odd piece of form which would suggest that he could be competitive in the latter stages of this grade one contest.


Ryanair Chase

At the time of writing the final decision as to the festival target of Sizing John has still yet to be confirmed. My personal preference would be to see him go for the shorter race as I believe he would have a much stronger chance of winning the Ryanair Chase compared to his Gold Cup claims. In the fairly unlikely event of him lining up on the Thursday, he would be one of my stronger each-way bets at the 2017 festival.

Whilst I do believe that Sub Lieutenant is the overpriced horse in the race; at the same time I see him as a horse very likely to run well and finish in the first three or four rather than as an each-way bet with a strong chance of winning. I would prefer to use him as a reasonable second selection in a placepot perm rather than as an each-way bet where I was counting on him having to win to return anything worthwhile. I might consider playing him 80/20 place over win on the day of the race if his place price lends itself to that sort of bet closer to the off.

Whilst I can see that Un De Sceaux might well win this Grade 1 contest and could conceivably win it with a little to spare; I also feel that, wherever he finishes, he is simply trading shorter than his profile merits. The fact that he is yet to prove his stamina for this distance is a major concern; particularly as he will probably need to be ridden close to the pace to acquire his best chance of success. He might well stay the two miles and five furlongs; however, at his current odds of 3/1 I would prefer to watch him or oppose him rather than have him on my side.

Assuming that Sizing John does not run, I would see Empire Of Dirt and Uxizandre as the two horses with the strongest claims of winning this race. The problem here is I missed the juicy prices on Empire Of Dirt and have little inclination to consider supporting him at around the 5/1 mark.

I think that the obvious way of trying to make money on the Ryanair Chase is by playing Uxizandre as a simple and conservative back to lay bet. I feel fairly confident that he will be ridden in a similar manner as when successful in the 2015 Ryanair Chase. My strength in this notion and this potential trade will increase markedly if he is declared to wear a visor for the first time since that previous festival success.

Previous Winners

Year Winner Trainer Jockey Age/Wt SP
2016VautourW P MullinsR Walsh7 11-101/1f
2015UxizandreA KingA P McCoy7 11-1016/1
2014DynasteD PipeT Scudamore8 11-103/1f
2013Cue CardC L TizzardJ Tizzard7 11-107/2
2012Riverside TheatreN J HendersonB J Geraghty8 11-107/2f
2011Albertas RunJonjo O'NeillA P McCoy10 11-106/1
2010 Albertas Run Jonjo O'Neill A P McCoy 9 11-10 14/1
2009 Imperial Commander N A Twiston-Davies P J Brennan 8 11-10 6/1
2008 Our Vic D Pipe T Murphy 10 11-10 4/1
2007 Taranis P Nicholls R Walsh 6 11-0 9/2
2006 Fondmort N J Henderson M Fitzgerald 10 11-0 100/30j
2005 Thisthatandtother P F Nicholls R Walsh 9 11-3 9-2