Champagne Fever primed for another fine performance at the Cheltenham Festival
Queen Mother Champion Chase, 2m, Old Course (due off 3.20pm)
There’s been plenty of toing and froing in this market with both the brilliant 2013 champion Sprinter Sacre and last year’s hero Sire De Grugy taking walks in the betting, before being backed in again. As it stands right now, the former horse is just edging favouritism at around 11/4 with his main rival at 10/3.
That could all change in a blink of an eye on the day of course and plenty of punters will be looking elsewhere for the winner. Why? Sprinter Sacre still has to prove he’s back to his brilliant best after finishing second to Dodging Bullets at Ascot on his reappearance following an enforced 13-month break due to heart problems. For much of that race, he jumped and travelled like the old Sprinter but, when asked for his effort between the last two, he found disappointingly little. His trainer Nicky Henderson would have left a little to work on but, even so, we were left wondering whether he will recapture his peak form. He has been the subject of some positive stable bulletins since, which helps explain his position in the market, and I guess we’ll find out on Wednesday afternoon. Top price: 11/4 Ladbrokes.
Sire De Grugy also failed to read the script on his return from a lay-off in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury, won by Mr Mole, unseating his rider three out when beat at the time (causing a huge price drift). However, he’s now fully back in the picture after handsomely justifying the adventurous plan by connections to complete his preparation in a Chepstow handicap. He had just three rivals admittedly but, looking magnificent in the paddock beforehand, he produced an exhilarating round of jumping to slam useful yardstick Grey Gold (who was getting 20lb) by seven lengths. That was more like it from the reigning champion and with every likelihood the race will bring him on again, it is now only Sprinter with a question to answer over his well-being. Top price: 10/3 Betfair.
Who else is fancied?
But neither of the above can hold a candle to the form shown by Dodging Bullets in two-mile chases this season. Benefiting from some Paul Nicholls magic, the seven-year-old has run out a convincing winner of the Tingle Creek and Clarence House Chase and has climbed to 171 in the official ratings’ which puts him just a 1lb behind Sire De Grugy. The negative with him is that he’s yet to show anything like his true form at three successive festivals, failing to make the places and he’s twice finished a long way behind Champagne Fever.
The latter has saved his very best for Cheltenham in March, as his record shows: wins in the Champion Bumper in 2012 and the Supreme Novices’ the following year were followed by a last-stride defeat in last year’s Arkle Trophy; all over 2m. Connections have tried to turn him into more of a staying type this season with mixed results. He patently failed to stay 3m in the King George and was still in with every chance when tipping up at the last in the Kinloch Brae (2m4f) won by Don Cossack. Those efforts were sandwiched between wins at Clonmel and Gowran (both over 2m4f) last time out, when held-up. Now dropping back to the minimum at Cheltenham, there’s only way he will ridden, with Ruby Walsh likely to give him an aggressive ride from the front. Having shown consistently how difficult he is to get past up the hill, any horse who achieves that is likely to be called the winner.
Any decent outsiders?
Shocks are rare with the winner emerging from the top-three in the market a staggering 46 times since the race’s inception in 1958, with just one of the last 33 winners being returned bigger than 11/1. The aforementioned Mr Mole is currently hovering around that mark and he could be a point or two shorter on the day given he is the mount of a certain AP McCoy. He’s the Nicholls second-string according to the betting, but he’s clearly improving a rate of knots and even the trainer is struggling to split his pair. Simply Ned finished ahead of Dodging Bullets in the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham in November and may do better still on quicker ground, although his trainer Nicky Richards has a dire Cheltenham record (0-29 with his chasers in the last decade). The rest are impossible to fancy.
Trainer quote: “He’s in great order, loves the place and we’re looking forward to the race.” – Willie Mullins on Champagne Fever
Best bookie offer
Race sponsors Betway are refunding stakes (as a free bet up to £50) if Sire De Grugy wins.
The decision by connections to run CHAMPAGNE FEVER in this race in preference to the longer Ryanair looks the right one, and he’s taken to outclass his rivals from the front.
Selection – Champagne Fever @ 11/2 Betway NRNB (6/1 Paddy Power)