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Champion Chase

Arguably the second biggest race of the festival after the Gold Cup, the Champion Chase is the pinnacle for a lot of horses and as a result, is more often than not a fiercely competitive spectacle. Quite how difficult it is to win a Champion Chase is highlighted by the fact that the race has so far eluded master trainer Willie Mullins. He’s had the early ante post favourite for the past two seasons, Chacun Pour Soi, who will surely turn up here again. In 2020 he missed the race due to a slight injury picked up the week of the festival. He finally made it to Cheltenham last season, but could only manage third. Travelling brilliantly just behind the leaders he took the lead towards the finish but was seemingly outstayed by Cheltenham specialist Put The Kettle On and the fast-finishing Nube Negra. To put into perspective how fine the margins in the race can be, the first 5 last year were separated by only three and a half lengths.

This year Chacun is 12/1 off the back of a poor run in the Tingle Creek at Sandown, leading to speculation as to whether travelling across to the UK suits him; for what it’s worth I don’t think this was the issue and wouldn’t write him off at Cheltenham based on that. There was, though, clearly an issue as he missed his next intended target over Christmas. If you wanted to back him, I would personally hold ofd until after this weekend when he is due to run in the Dublin Chase at the Dublin Racing Festival. Here we would learn more about his well being and if he can bounce back to form. There is no doubt that on his day he is high class, but he has also just turned ten and ten-year-olds don’t tend to have the best record in this race. You’d feel it was the last chance saloon for him.

It’s probably academic discussing Chacun and indeed many of the other runners, due to the brilliance of the two at the top of the market, Shishkin and Energumene. Top two mile chase trainer Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin has so far followed in the footsteps of his stablemates and predecessors, Altior and Sprinter Sacre who both dominated the two-mile chase division and each won multiple Champion Chases as part of their dazzling careers. Shishkin is unbeaten under rules barring a fall on his hurdles debut, including twice winning at the festival in the Supreme and the Arkle. He is the 4/6 favourite for the race and is, without doubt, the best horse trained this side of the Irish sea. Energumene, another Mullins hotshot was due to clash with Shishkin in last years Arkle having dominated the two mile division in Ireland. Due to a minor injury, we missed out on that battle last year and Shishkin won well against inferior opposition in that Arkle. With both bolting up in grade two races first time out this year, both camps would have been confident of their chances heading into Cheltenham.

Perhaps surprisingly we didn’t have to wait until the big festival race for them to meet, with the two contesting the Clarence House at Ascot this January. Unfortunately, it says a lot about the sorry state that racing finds itself in, that even up until the start of the race, a lot of the pessimists thought that one of the two would be withdrawn. We don’t tend to get the clashes throughout the season that we used to and I think both Mullins and Henderson deserve a lot of respect for holding their nerve and pitting their superstars against each other away from Cheltenham. It was a throwback to a bygone era and the race itself was massively built up by the media. For once the race lived up to the billing and we got a brilliant and fascinating affair that left our mouths watering for the rematch come Cheltenham. Energumene bounced out in the lead and jumped well looking like the winner everywhere but the final furlong. It took a while but Shishkin kept finding and his customary finishing kick got him out of what looked to be serious trouble and he got up close home.

On the face of it you could argue that Energumene had everything go his way, and still couldn’t beat Shishkin. But he isn’t one to write off as the margin of defeat was only a length and what’s to say that Shishkin might make two mistakes at Cheltenham, rather than just the one? That could be all it needs for Energumene to overturn the form. The Clarence House is actually contested over nearly a furlong further than Cheltenham and Energumene seemed to slow down with Shishkin getting on top only in the last furlong, so you could the shorter trip at Cheltenham could be what swings it in his favour. On the other hand that factor could be negated by Cheltenham’s stiff hill finish which requires extra stamina than a standard two mile race. We know that Shishkin loves the hill and has won at the course twice before already. Of the two I would prefer Shishkin, but I don’t think that the result is as cut and dry as people are making out, I wouldn’t be surprised if Energumene can reverse the Clarence House form. 4/6 about Shishkin and 10/3 on Energumene seems fair in my eyes.

Though the two at the top of the market look the likely winners, it would be foolish to completely write off the rest as we know Cheltenham has thrown up many surprises over the years. When last years winner, Put The Kettle On, is 25/1, it shows how open the race looks behind the main two. It could pay to keep the faith each way with her, she is brilliant at the course, having won the Arkle herself. Even if she has been below par elsewhere this year, a revert back to top form isn’t impossible. As a word of warning it appears connections have suggested she may be aimed at the Mares Chase this year. Nube Negra was a good second in the race last year and after being put in his place by Chacun at Punchestown last April, he won the grade two Shloer Chase over course and distance beating Put The Kettle On. However, he then disappointed in the same Tingle Creek that Chacun flopped in. He’s generally better fresh though and will go to Cheltenham of the back of a break and at 12/1 could grab a place.

Greaneteen, for 2020 winning trainer, Paul Nicholls, won that Tingle Creek impressively and is a 16/1 shot for the race, though on his next start was beaten 10 lengths by a Shishkin who was never seriously ridden. Perhaps highlighting how clear the two favourites are from a generally well-matched field. The 2020 winner Politologue is 22/1 this year, but he hasn’t ever hit the same level of form since. Envoi Allen is 20/1 and most recently won a grade one over two miles and was obviously high class as a novice; though that was possibly the weakest ever grade one facing just two rivals who were cleverly placed and might even get lapped in this race. I'd imagine as well that 2 miles wouldn’t be Envoi’s best trip either and expect he’ll be aimed at the Ryanair. Another that could also go for the Ryanair, Hitman, also for Paul Nicholls, has shown decent form this year and at 28/1 could fill the frame if her were to run in this race. Though, as a 6-year-old I think he is one for the next few years as opposed to this one, and I can see them opting to wait for Aintree and avoid a hard race like the Champion Chase this early in his career. The one at a bigger price that would interest me is Sceau Royal at a huge 50/1. He has been placed in the race before and was less than 4 lengths away in fifth in the race last year, a grade two winner over fences and hurdles, he could surprise people. I would definitely consider backing each way, especially if they offer extra places on the day.

So far I haven’t advised a single Ante Post bet on the race, as I wasn't certain who I preferred out of the main two. I will play the forecast Shishkin/Energumene on the day. The other bet I’ll advise is a 12/1 each way in the without Shishkin and Energumene market, Sceau Royal who I already mentioned. I think he‘s quite consistent and if you think Shishkin and Energumene are 1st and 2nd in some order. You’re basically getting 12/1 each way for him in the first 5. There are probably better horses ahead of him in the market still but none without question marks, Sceau Royal always runs his race and should be there or there abouts.

Advised plays–

Shishkin/Energumene forecast. Sceau Royal W/O Shishkin and Energumene 12/1 each way

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