Just under a year ago Balder Succes gave God’s Own 7lbs and a beating at Kempton in the Pendil Novices’ Chase. On that occasion he travelled powerfully through the race before staying on strongly to win. His trainer decided to dodge the Cheltenham Festival, which proved to be a shrewd move when the horse won his first Grade 1 in the Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree.
After that victory connections firmly believed that Balder Succes’s best trip remained two miles and the horse would likely be aimed at the Queen Mother Champion Chase. But the passage of time and subsequent results have caused a rethink in the camp, and after capturing his second Grade 1 when winning the Betfair Ascot Chase on Saturday, King’s flag bearer is set to take on his greatest challenge when heading to the Festival in March for an engagement in the Ryanair Chase.
Two defeats in December finally persuaded his trainer that the minimum trip was just a little too sharp at the very highest level. King spoke after Saturday’s Ascot win: “I'm both relieved and thrilled. That was just what I wanted to see and probably a little better than I expected. The owners are away, but I'm sure it will be the Ryanair next. Over two and a half miles they just go half a stride slower early on, those good two milers were just getting him at it and taking him out of his comfort zone."
Ptit Zig had looked to be one of his major rivals, but he tipped up some way from home and before the race really began in earnest. Ma Filleule was the only horse capable of going with the winner as jockey Wayne Hutchinson sent him to the front four fences out. The two drew clear, but the result never looked in doubt. Balder Succes galloped on powerfully all the way to the line, winning by over three lengths with a further 23 lengths back to Ballycasey in third.
As short as 6/1 in places for the Ryanair, it’s hard not to be impressed by the style of his last two victories. His jumping has looked assured and he’s finished his races off strongly. His record at Cheltenham is pretty disastrous and that will certainly be a concern for punters. Course form is always looked upon as a major positive when the Festival arrives especially in this particular race with nine of the last ten winners having previously won at the track.
Another slight worry for trend followers wishing to put their trust in Balder Succes is the expanding list of horses coming to the Ryanair off the back of a tilt at the King George. Indeed the last seven winners all ran in the Christmas showpiece, though Cue Card and Riverside Theatre had also won the Ascot Chase on route to their Ryanair successes.
This year’s favourite Don Cossack will also have to overcome a lack of course form if he is to win. He’s another contender that hit the turf on his previous visit to Prestbury Park when coming down in last year’s RSA. The horse has had a terrific season to date, winning four in a row including the Grade 1 John Durkan at Punchestown where he beat Boston Bob by four lengths.
That form looks only fair at best, but his last performance was his most impressive. He appeared to be hunting down Champagne Fever at Thurles when that rival came down at the last. He looks a strong stayer who should be storming up the famous hill as well as any. The form of that last run was boosted on Saturday when Mullins’ horse was a convincing winner of the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park.
Twice a winner at the Festival, the classy grey has that crucial trend ticking King George run under his belt, but could well head for the Champion Chase instead. His trainer said after his win at the weekend: "I'm just happy that we can go to Cheltenham off a positive note now rather than on the back of a fall. I'd imagine it will be the Ryanair or the Queen Mother. We won't be going in the other direction now. I haven't a decision made and where he will go. The plan now is to keep him sound between now and Cheltenham and make the decision in a fortnight's time.”
Many a judge believes that the minimum trip will suit Champagne Fever, but the likely better ground at Cheltenham could see him running a huge race over two miles and five furlongs.
Another that has a favourable race profile is the Jonjo trained Johns Spirit. He positively loves the course and ran a huge race when just touched off in the Paddy Power Gold Cup back in November. Another that has the King George members badge, he travelled well for much of that Kempton contest. It’s true that his form looks a tad short of top-class, but he is a fast improving eight-year-old, and his trainer has an excellent Festival record.
Jackdaws Castle may well go into the race double-handed after Taquin Du Seuil failed to get home in the Denman Chase behind Coneygree last week. The 2014 JLT winner was viewed as a Gold Cup horse going into this winter, but the Newbury run has probably tipped the balance towards a crack at the Ryanair. Jumping errors have become a common theme with this fella and that has to be a concern if he takes on a strong field in this. He has that valuable course form and it is clear that Jonjo holds him in high regard.
Riverside Theatre was probably the only horse to win this race on the back of a mediocre jumping display.
In its short history, Albertas Run is the only multiple winner, having won the race in 2010 and 2011. Jonjo’s wonderful chaser loved Cheltenham and almost made it three in a row when pipped by Riverside Theatre. Cue Card will be attempting to regain his Ryanair crown after missing last year’s Festival due to injury. He hasn’t looked his best this winter, but he does love Cheltenham, especially in March. A winner of the Champion Bumper; fourth in the Supreme; second in an Arkle and victory in the Ryanair of 2013 is a mighty impressive CV.
If Cue Card should run to near his best, he will be hard to catch. Of course there are huge question marks over the horse, but no-one can doubt his class and Festival pedigree.
Despite the loss of Dynaste through injury, the race has an exciting look to it. The returning champions will take on progressive young chasers with star potential. Those ticking the trend boxes clash with those yet to prove themselves at the home of jump racing. The likely outcome will be debated right up until the drop of the flag in just over three weeks.