This week on The Cheltenham Countdown on OTB AM Thom Malone looked ahead to the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Wednesday’s feature is a race that has somehow eluded the grasp of trainer Willie Mullins, despite training two-mile chasing monsters like Un De Sceaux and Douvan.
Nicky Henderson has dominated the race in recent years, taking it five times since 2012, six in all. Henderson, Paul Nicholls and Tom Dreaper hold the record jointly. While if Henderson’s star Altior can rediscover his sparkle, he would join the great Badsworth Boy as a record three-time winner of the race.
Is Altior still Cheltenham king?
Nicky Henderson has apparently been frustrated by various small setbacks with Altior in the last two years. He didn't run due to having a splint in the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2020, then the pandemic shut down any other avenues that season.
The superstar has undoubtedly lost some of his lustre and has looked like he needed further than two miles since he won this race for a second time in 2019.
Many things are against Altior and for the first time, he even has an entry in the Ryanair. The trainer’s cautious approach has seen him only run once in since last February. This included a bizarre rant about the ground at Sandown being too soft despite what the clerk of the course, going stick and race times said.
If Altior turns up here, punters can assume he is spot on, if anything is off he will not run in this race.
Age is against him, only Moscow Flyer has won this race aged 11 this century, and the previous was Skymas in the late 1970s.
The real Altior could create some history, but in truth, that horse has not been seen since 2019. Sprinter Sacre came back to do it, as did Moscow Flyer, it would be incredible for Altior but all recent evidence suggests it is highly unlikely.
Chacun Pour Soi
Like Altior, Chacun Pour Soi was a late withdrawal for this race in 2020 with an abscess on his foot, the kind of quick-healing minor injury that makes a trainer question his life choices.
The horse has only had six starts over fences tasting defeat only once, given what A Plus Tard has done since that underperformance can be forgiven.
— Fergal O’Brien Racing (@FOBRacing) December 27, 2020
One imagines a clear round at Leopardstown in the Dublin Racing Festival in the coming weeks will leave Chacun Pour Soi cherry ripe and will be a deserved favourite, but he is not a bet until he is actually on the racecourse, given what happened last year.
Politologue is the reigning Champions and trainer Paul Nicholls has said the horse will go straight to Cheltenham having been beaten in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in very soft ground last weekend.
He is an incredibly durable horse, proof one cannot win a raffle without buying a ticket. 2020 was his fifth appearance at the Cheltenham Festival and his first win.
— Off The Ball (@offtheball) March 11, 2020
Paul Nicholls is the master of the lesser-spotted technique of actually running horses rather than just focussing on Cheltenham. Politologue has won over a million euro in prize money despite not having the talent of an Altior or Chacun Pour Soi.
The big grey will turn up and run his race, but really it was a substandard renewal he won in 2020 with just a handful of runners and Defi du Seuil underperforming. He looks unlikely to retain his crown unless the race cuts up again.
The unheralded First Flow has burst onto the Champion Chase picture after a brilliant jumping display in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot. On official ratings, he had plenty to find last weekend, but with an aggressive ride, he got the better of Politologue.
How impressed was everyone with First Flow today...
It was certainly a performance I wasn’t expecting but he’s put in a super round here, Politologue was supposed to be the main threat to Chacun Pour Soi, after brushing him aside is he now a contender...?pic.twitter.com/19S9XCztvI
— Grant James Thomas (@Grant_Some92) January 23, 2021
The win brought up a sequence of six on the spin for Kim Bailey's charge. He is now officially rated 166, which entitles him to have a go. It has been a while since his trainer had a good one, it was his first Grade one win since the 1995 Gold Cup for Kim Bailey.
It looks like First Flow needs a soft racing surface to truly thrive, something he is unlikely to get at Cheltenham. But having beaten the reigning Champion and last year’s favourite Defi du Seuil, and concerns over the fragility of Chacun Pour Soi, First Flow deserves to go.
Kim Bailey might be the only trainer hoping for some more rain in the next few weeks but there is no doubting the gelding’s wellbeing with further progression possible. The only question is whether such an aggressive ride would be possible again for First Flow.
Put The Kettle On
Last year’s Arkle winner has an impeccable record at the venue, three wins from as many visits. Course form is one of the most regular positives for Cheltenham Festival trends followers and Henry de Bromhead’s mare with three from three ticks that box. While the trainer also has an excellent record in the race, winning it twice in the last decade.
— Virgin Media Sport (@VMSportIE) November 15, 2020
The Arkle is also the key source of winners for the Champion Chase with seven previous winners of the novice race going on to take the Champion Chase since 2003.
The mare was well beaten by Chacun Pour Soi at Christmas, however, she does seem to be better fresh and at Cheltenham.
Dan Skelton will undoubtedly have one of his strongest ever teams to compete at Cheltenham this year and Nube Negra is very close to the top of the pile. The horse has done what very few others have achieved and beaten Altior, only the second over timber to do so.
🚨 Altior is beaten
Nube Negra makes a winning reappearance, seeing off Altior in the Grade Two Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase for @DSkeltonRacing & @harryskelton89 @kemptonparkrace pic.twitter.com/6PAyfqLP5W
— Racing TV (@RacingTV) December 27, 2020
That Desert Orchid win put him firmly in the Champion Chase picture and Harry Skelton has committed to riding this horse rather than last year’s winner Politologue.
Whether the Altior form stacks up is questionable. The proximity of Duc de Genievres raises a red flag, but he will arrive there fresh. The Altior scalp is still a rare commodity but one which can do nothing but give confidence to the Skelton camp.
Finally, Notebook, a stablemate of Put The Kettle On and was a shorter price than her in last year's Arkle. He only finished sixth that day, by some way his worst chasing performance.
Since then he had a convincing win at Naas on his seasonal debut and was second to Chacun Pour Soi. His form is far more consistent than others mentioned. He also only has entries over two miles so punters can back him with only one target in mind.
He is a bit of a lump who loves jumping and that was the problem at Leopardstown at Christmas. There wasn't enough jumping with the low sun. Poor Notebook could not have been any more confused by the near three-furlong gallop home with no obstacles.
Yes, he lacks the pace of Chacun Pour Soi, but a few more jumps might have slowed Willie Mullins’ horse down a bit. At the end of the Queen Mother, they are often gasping for air, not quickening away.
Notebook can jump and stay and has enough pace to be there when it matters, at 20/1 he has a huge chance.
Chacun Pour Soi is a worthy favourite and will likely win at Leopardstown. The defection of Altior is the only other major factor that would see his price change dramatically. As an each-way alternative Notebook stands out at 20/1.