The Cheltenham Festival Day 2 highlight is the Queen Mother Champion Chase, a ferocious test of speed, stamina and jumping ability where only the classiest prevail.
Shortcut to 2016 Champion Chase Trends
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In this post, we'll review the main trends (attempting to ensure there is at least a scintilla of statistical significance), look at the key form lines, and arrive at a selection that is a bigger price than its chance implies. At least, I hope we will...
Champion Chase 2016 Trends
Sifting through the trends, gratitude is due to horseracebase.com from where I source a lot of the raw data which is then cooked and crunched into the tables and inferences hereafter.
Champion Chase Age Trends
As can be seen from the chart below, younger horses have consistently out-performed their numbers. In the 18 renewals since 1997 (foot and mouth wiped out 2001's Festival - whatever did we do that year?), the sole five-year-old runner - the brilliant Master Minded, who was simply electric that year - won.
The 13 six-year-old entries have claimed two victories - Master Minded again and Voy Por Ustedes - as well as four further places. And those a year older than that won thrice from 21 starts and nabbed four more places.
Each individual age group took both more wins and more places than their pro rata representation; and collectively they won six Champion Chases from just 35 entries. 33% winners, and 27% placers, from 21% runners.
What is particularly noteworthy is that five of the six winners, from 23 of the 35 runners, aged seven or younger were bred in France. 83% winners from 66% runners.
Champion Chase Trends: Horse Origin
And that leads me nicely on to horse origin/breeding. While seven of the 18 Champion Chase winners since 1997 were French bred, from 53 runners (39% winners, 31% runners), there were actually more Irish bred Champion Chasers during this period.
Eight winners (44%) were conceived in Ireland, from 78 runners (45%). Dead on what might have been expected based on weight of numbers. And, let's face it, there have already been a lot of numbers in these opening salvos: stick with it, the words are worth the wait (perhaps - I'll let you be the judge of that).
The other three winners (17%) were GB-bred, from 28 runners (16%). Again, that's about par for their representation.
Germany (0 wins, 3 places, from 7 runs), USA ("ofer" 5 as they say, or zero wins and places from five runs as we say), and New Zealand (one runner, no show) make up the dataset.
Champion Chase Last Time Out Trends
Last day form figures can be a little misleading, but not always. For most big heats, be it a heritage handicap or a Championship Graded race, a solid recent run is a must. The Queen Mother Champion Chase is no exception, as the table below illustrates.
36% of QMCC runners won their previous start, and they accounted for 72% of the winners - twice as many as might have been expected on numerical representation. They also claimed exactly half of the podium positions on offer. Perhaps most remarkably, they were good for a level stakes profit at Starting Price.
With 10/1 Big Zeb and 16/1 Newmill in the midst of the more fancied last time out victors, don't be too hasty to write one off at a price if it beat all the last day.
Whilst none of the 28 horses to finish outside the first four or pulled up last time even made the frame, horses that fell or unseated on their most recent start accounted for two wins and two further places from just eight runners. Plenty of the best 'speed chasers' get very low at their fences - it's part of what makes them so fast, Moscow Flyer perhaps being the best example - so while it might be a heart in mouth ride, backing a last day faller could still pay off, if your ticker can handle it!
Champion Chase: Seasonal Runs
How many races prior to Cheltenham is optimal? According to the evidence of the last 18 renewals, more than none and less than five, with all winners bar the five-time seasonal starter, Sire De Grugy, fitting that bill.
Of course, it is important to note that most runners will sit in that camp: 75% in the period under scrutiny.
Those to have had three or four runs in the season to date claimed eleven wins (61%) and 32 places (62%) from 86 runners (50%), and that could be a fertile middle ground between match fitness and over-exposure.
Champion Chase: Other Trendy Notes
Whilst not exactly a trend, it is worth being aware that 11 of the last 15 Champion Chase winners ran in Sandown's December showpiece, the Tingle Creek. Dodging Bullets was the latest, winning there and following up in the Clarence House before proving too good for Somersby (recommended each way at 40/1 in this preview last year) and the rest in the big one.
Dodging Bullets hasn't been seen since, having had a splint injury (whatever that is), but is being targeted at Newbury's Game Spirit Chase on 13th February.
In the last 35 years, only Newmill (16/1) has started bigger than 11/1 and prevailed in the Champion Chase.
Queen Mother Champion Chase 2016 Form Preview
The roll of honour for the Champion Chase is as long and distinguished as you might expect, and includes National Hunt greats such as Fortria, Flyingbolt, Hilly Way, Badsworth Boy, Viking Flagship, Moscow Flyer, Azertyuiop, Master Minded and, most recently, Sprinter Sacre.
Those are big hoof prints in which to follow and, while Dodging Bullets was the best of his peer group last year, the feeling persisted that this was a division in transition, a sense lent ballast by Un De Sceaux's romp in the novice equivalent, the Arkle Trophy.
That said, both Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy - winners in 2013 and 2014 respectively - were present, and indeed headed the market at 9/4 and 5/2 respectively. Neither could make the frame, Sire de Grugy's ten length fourth the better of the pair. Both have returned for another crack this season.
Sprinter Sacre put the disappointment of pulling up in that Champion Chase behind him with a defiant second to Special Tiara in the season-ending Celebration Chase at Sandown, and he's two from two this season.
First up was an easy victory over Somersby in the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham, before a narrower verdict over Sire de Grugy at Kempton. Both of those wins were in Grade 2 company, and that looks shrewd campaigning by connections for a horse probably on his lap of honour.
Whilst the visual impression was joyful as he bounded clear of the noble but aging Somersby up the Cheltenham hill, it was a shallow contest in behind with Mr Mole looking at odds with the game and Savello and Simply Ned 17 lengths and more not good enough last year in the main event.
Sprinter Sacre is the second favourite at a top price of 5/1 and, for me, he's easy to strike a line through, even though there are ramifications of so doing. It will be as pleasing to the eye as it will be painful to the wallet if I'm wrong, so at least sport will win if I/we don't.
Those ramifications are to be found in the incestuous form lines surrounding Hendo's Sprinter. The two mile chasing fraternity is small at the pinnacle, which means meetings between its number are frequent. So far this season, Sprinter Sacre has beaten Sire de Grugy by a fine margin; Sire de Grugy has beaten Special Tiara by a fine margin; and everyone has beaten Vibrato Valtat, Savello, Mr Mole, and Simply Ned.
The point here is that if you like Sprinter Sacre at 5/1, you really ought to be betting Sire de Grugy or, more likely, Special Tiara at three times the price, each way.
Gary Moore was pretty honest about having Sire de Grugy 'off for his life' (my words, not his) in the Clarence House last weekend. In the event, he was good enough to run Un De Sceaux to five lengths and nab second. Just good enough. More of that anon.
That tempers enthusiasm considerably, and having watched him miss the frame last year, I am happy to watch him miss the frame again this. That said, he's another where pain in the wallet would be significantly eased by warmth in the heart were he to roll back the (two) years since he claimed the Champion Chase crown.
From those three hoofed musketeers, that leaves Special Tiara. Hovering around the same 14/1 mark as SdG, this one is easier to like, for me at least. His best form seems to be on top of the ground, and there has to be a better than even money chance of good to soft or quicker come middle March.
His recent runs offer hope of a medal, too. A three length third in the Champion Chase last year, when leading for much of the race, he was six lengths too good for Sprinter Sacre in the Celebration Chase six weeks later. This season he has yet to fire, though knowing Henry de Bromhead as I unquestionably don't, I'd imagine he's targeting his lad for one day only.
The Tiara was too bad to be true when whacked in the Fortria Chase, a race he was also whacked in - albeit slightly less resoundingly - last season, on his seasonal bow. He was a different proposition in the Tingle Creek and might have won but for the aforementioned mid-air barging march, from which he came off far worse.
Beaten three-quarters of a length there, it was still a fine performance, and he could have another run before the Festival, ground depending. The weather looks to have scuppered plans to compete in the Tied Cottage this weekend, however, so he may be a beat shy of concert pitch at the Fez.
In any case, I do have another reservation with Special Tiara, and that is his hunger for the lead. As we'll see, he won't get the unpestered pace-making position he did last year. So, while he has battled back to the front in the past, that's a concern.
It's probably about time we discussed the elephant in the room. Actually, Un De Sceaux is anything but pachydermous on the evidence of a couple of high speed collisions with the birch on his autumnal début in each of the last two seasons.
That buzzy early frailty - call it premature ejaculation if you will - has only fleetingly rendered flaccid the beast of a lover that is UdS. Indeed, though rather messing up my clumsy (and crude) metaphor, those two tumbles are the only times in a twelve race career he hasn't come first. Guffaw.
Most recently, he was a casual five lengths too good for Gary Moore's pair, Sire de Grugy, and Traffic Fluide, who finished second and third respectively. Having watched the finish several times, I didn't feel Un de Sceaux had bundles more to offer, though he may be 'tighter' physically for Cheltenham.
Moreover, he made no headway from the last on the third, though it's right to say that neither did he lose ground, and for him the job was done.
The other point to note with regard to Un De Sceaux is that he loves to lead. So does Special Tiara. They can't both lead. It is more likely that UdS will get the lead, but how readily Special Tiara cedes it, and how much energy the favourite exerts in his quest for pole position, is a key consideration.
If there remains a niggle that he can be beaten, either by the fences or an upwardly mobile rival, there is grudging acceptance that even money and a shade of odds on across the market is entirely reasonable. UdS is a most obvious candidate for Champion Chase primacy.
Vautour is a dangerous floater and, for the purposes of this preview, I am assuming he will take up an engagement elsewhere. He seems to be entered for everything from this to the Gold Cup to the Wimbledon Ladies' Singles. If he does line up here, his chance is very good - certainly better (in my opinion) than the 3/1 non-runner money back that tops the insurance markets.
Moving back to the likely runners, and specifically that former French fencer, Fluide, Traffic Fluide. I remember thinking he cost a lot of money when I saw him win a novices' handicap chase at Plumpton this time last year. €90,000 (about sixty-eight grand) doesn't look too bad now.
After Plumpton, he took in Esher (easy Sandown win) and Aintree (solid third in Grade 1). And then he went to Ascot for that Grade 1 against UdS and SdG (excuse the acronyms, I'm in the early throes of RSI - there I go again - and can't rein in this verbosity).
He was a stride away from bagging second at Ascot, and that when he was expected to need the run according to his trainer before - and after - the race. In his last three contests, he's improved from 135 to 166 in leaps of +13, +6, +12. As a lightly raced six year old, there has to be every chance of at least another five pounds of improvement, taking him to around 170+.
That would give him the beating of almost all of this field. And here's another thing; two actually. First, he probably wants it a bit quicker than the soft at Ascot on Saturday. And second, his versatile off the pace run style looks ideally suited to a race where there will be at least two hellbent on getting on with it.
The 2016 Champion Chase sets up for a closer, and this lad is that. He is also young (we've seen how well youth, especially les jeunes Francaises, have performed), progressive and comes from a trainer with some serious two mile chase talent in his barn - as well as this fellow and Sire de Grugy he has the exciting novice, Ar Mad.
The 25/1 has gone, the 20/1 has gone, the 16/1 is going. And, on the basis of the above, it's no surprise. In a race with plenty on the down escalator, this is a highly credible ascender.
But what of the champ? Dodging Bullets proved himself the best of his bunch three times in succession last season: in the Tingle Creek, the Clarence House and the Champion Chase. If he comes through his prep race at Newbury well, he'll likely shorten in the market, and he looks to hold robust if unexciting place claims.
This year is deeper than last year, where he beat the fantastic octogenarian Somersby and Special Tiara, who had done plenty earlier and was screaming for an oxygen mask up the hill. Somersby sadly looks to have conceded defeat to Old Father Time (not entered this year), meaning even the most optimistic of fans (that would be me) has to reluctantly let him pass.
[But, should the moment present itself, I will holler with the raucous abandon of an 'all in' heads up WSoP winner if the doddery old bugger can clamber up that incline in front].
Who's left? God's Own? Here is another I tipped last year, for the Arkle then, and at 33/1. He ran second to the current even money (and shorter) Champion Chase jolly that day, and he is a capable fellow. Very lightly raced this season on account of the ground, he's not been sighted since the Haldon Gold Cup where he ran a fair third on softer than ideal turf.
He needs it quick, which he will probably get; but his form looks to have plateaued at around the 160 mark (official rating). That's not good enough to win a Champion Chase even in a moderate year - which I don't think this is - and I doubt it's good enough to make the frame, even allowing for the fact that he's relatively unexposed and his trainer has his team in rude health.
Simonsig? He's a joker in the pack on his best form, for sure. But his best form was three years ago now, and the only sighting on a race track since was when beaten by fellow lengthy Hendo absentee, Bobs Worth, in a hurdle heat at Aintree back in November. The clock is ticking for this lad in more ways than one, and his top price of 16/1 (10/1 in a place, really, Corwwle?!) offers little wriggle room for the rigours of three years off injured. I can't honestly say I'll cheer if this one does me up, but I'm sure someone somewhere will. Good luck to 'em.
Josses Hill? Can't jump, won't jump. Didn't jump in the Tingle Creek where he ejected at the fourth. Not seen since. No tah. Felix Yonger? He's not getting any Yonger (groan) at ten and, though he won the Grade 1 Champion Chase at the Punchestown Festival last season, he beat an abject field for such a valuable and prestigious race.
The balance of his form gives him plenty of a stone to find, and he's hardly progressive after 22 career starts. Fine servant, as they say, but ain't winning a Champion Chase.
Queen Mother Champion Chase 2016 Tips
Un De Sceaux has an outstanding chance of following up his Arkle win last year with a Champion Chase title this time around. And, if you're in the business of backing probable winners that will eventually send you skint - but will provide for many tales of punting derring-do in between times - that chap is for you. He's classy and we might not have seen the best of him yet.
But if you want a bit more jam on your bread, albeit at the risk of winding up sans pain, then Traffic Fluide is the garçon. He is on a rapid upward curve, his trainer knows how to make this gig happen, and his run style looks perfectly suited to the race make up. Anything between soft and good should be dandy so, despite the fanciest prices having already gone, 16/1 is still tasty enough, each way and non-runner no bet. I'd guess he'll be close to a single figure price on the day.
If you want to take more of a chance, or potentially less of a chance, Skybet, Paddy and Betfair are betting without Un De Sceaux. It's more of a chance because this is not a non-runner no bet market, so if he fails to show, you've done your dough. It's less of a chance because he's 9/1 and 8/1 for the win and 2/1 or 9/5 for the place. [Stop Press: Skybet are NRNB on this market too]
Un De Sceaux could, deities forbid, come down. If he does, who would you wager to finish second. If he doesn't, with this option you've still got down to fourth place for an each way play. I prefer to back him to win only in the without market and each way in the 'with'.
Bonne chance, mes amis!
Champion Chase 2016 Selection
1 pt e/w Traffic Fluide 16/1 NRNB Skybet, Boyle, Betfair Sports, Racebets
0.5 pt win Traffic Fluide without Un De Sceaux 9/1 NRNB Skybet
[Further Stop Press: Traffic Fluide has suffered an injury and will not run at Cheltenham. We get our money back but we lose out on what promised to be a super spectacle.]
Other Cheltenham Festival 2016 Ante-Post Previews
All of our in-depth previews, trends and tips can be found here: