Day Two's Cheltenham Festival highlight is the Champion Chase, the ultimate test of jumping with speed and accuracy. It is always one of the most thrilling spectacles of the whole week and, this year, we have the mighty Douvan to look forward to.
From a betting perspective, we need ask whether he Douvan can be beaten and, if not, how else we might go about snaffling some value (assuming you don't believe 1/3 is value or, more likely, have don't enough gold bullion bars to cash in at those odds)?
Champion Chase 2017 Trends
We begin with some history-pokery and a sniff around any profile angles that might be lurking, using the past 19 renewals, covering 20 years (abandoned in 2001).
This is one of those stats around which one needs to be very careful. You may read that horses aged eight and up have had the best of it but, whilst in the simplest sense that may be true, the young bucks have actually held sway.
So, yes, 13 of the 19 (68%) Champion Chase winners since 1997 were aged eight or older. But they accounted for 81% of the runners, and only 75% of the places. In other words, they were doing a bit less than might numerically have been expected.
Compare that with the five- to seven-year-olds. This age group won six Champion Chases (32%) in the last two decades, from just 19% of the runners. And they took out a quarter of the places, too, from that less-than-a-fifth of those going to post.
With no five- or six-year-olds in the entries this season, the seven-year-olds still engaged (though possibly not by tomorrow, Thursday 9th March) are Douvan, Altior, Traffic Fluide, Fox Norton, L'Ami Serge and Alisier d'Irlande.
One interesting element of those younger winners is that four of the five winners aged seven or less were French-bred. In fact, eight of the last 19 winners - 42% - originated in France from just 31% of the runners. Irish-bred horses also have a solid record: eight wins - still 42% - from 45% of the runners.
Aside from a slight tendency towards the French-bred horses, there is not much else to note.
Last Time Out
Last day winners have a statistical dominance that is obvious. For the record, all bar five Champion Chase winners in the last twenty years won their prior start. That's 74% of the winners (and 51% of the placers) from 36% of the runners.
Those finishing second, third or fourth have made the frame in direct proportion to their runner numbers, but what is of mild interest is that of the eight horses to line up having fallen or unseated last time, two won and another two made the frame. Indeed, while three of them fell again, the full form string for last day tumblers is 1F3F14F2, a sequence that includes 5/1 and 9/1 winners; placed efforts at 16/1 and 14/1; and a fourth placed 33/1 shot.
Horses that are most effective in two mile chases almost necessarily take risks at their fences. So perhaps we should be more forgiving, especially when the market seems to have a blind spot in relation to such runners. The sample size is small and, in any case, the chances of beating Douvan are slim, but perhaps we might have a second glance at 2014 winner, Sire De Grugy, in spite of his advancing years.
Then again, perhaps not. Horses returning after a break of between one and two months have easily the best record. They've claimed 84% of the wins, and 75% of the places, from 59% of the runners.
Those returning within a month have made the frame less than half as often as might have been numerically expected; while those absent for two months or more have marginally under-performed.
It's hardly a knockout blow for any horse's chance but the right combination of fresh and fit looks advantageous, and counts against Sire De Grugy, God's Own and Alisier d'Irlande.
Champion Chase 2017 Form Preview
What to 'dou' with Douvan? He has a commanding edge over this field in the presumed absence of Altior and Un De Sceaux, and is unbeaten in his last fourteen starts since a debut second back three years ago.
He's nine from nine over fences, including six Grade 1's, and he seems unfussed by the state of the turf. Douvan's dominance is somewhat accentuated by what looks a pretty shallow division this term, with Fox Norton a tenuous 'best of the rest'.
Formerly with Nick Williams and Neil Mulholland, Colin Tizzard's second season chaser has seemed a trifle overblown to my eye: victories over the likes of Dormello Mo and 140-rated sorts in a handicap chase are not the stuff of Champion Chase second favouritism. And I can't help but feel his official rating is inflated, a comprehensive doing by Altior (received five pounds, could have given a stone) last time doing nothing to dispel the notion.
I simply don't believe that Fox Norton is worth a rating of 166.
God's Own is famously a 'spring horse', winning at the Punchestown Festival in the past two seasons, and doubling up last term with a victory at Aintree (at odds of 10/1 and 9/1, no less). He was eight lengths behind the resurgent Sprinter Sacre in the 2016 Champion Chase, a distance which was only good enough for fourth. Tom George's nine-year-old ought to again get close to the frame if taking in this rather than the Ryanair, and I prefer his 'been there, done it' CV - in spite of a preference for two and a half miles - to Fox Norton's flattered (in my view) formbook page.
Could Vroum Vroum Mag show up here? She might, but her form at two miles in the mares' division is not good enough to entertain seriously in a Champion Chase.
Uxizandre is considered more likely for the Ryanair, a race he won two seasons ago before injury kept him off the track until last month. There he picked up the pieces behind Un De Sceaux, form that looks good enough to make the Champion Chase frame in a very weak year. He loves Cheltenham and is 11/2 non-runner no bet, without Douvan.
And what of Special Tiara? He's run terrific races to be third in the last two Champion Chases, both times of layoffs since Christmas, whereas this time he ran a shocker in late January here in the re-routed Clarence House Chase. He's 6/1 in the 'without Douvan' market which makes more appeal than plenty of his rivals, without compelling this scribe to reach for his wallet.
The 2014 Champion Chaser, Sire De Grugy, has had a quietly pleasing season in many respects. Ignoring an early fall on his most recent outing, he'd previously won a valuable handicap off a mark of 160 carrying top weight before running a length second to Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek. It seems, however, that connections will rough him off for the season now, missing all of the spring festivals.
Down, down the lists we go, in search of a faintly interesting alternative to Douvan. The truth is there are none, but I want to play the 'without' market so the quest continues.
Garde La Victoire has ability but can't jump and is probably seven pounds south of what is needed to hit the board, while The Game Changer has lost all of his last ten races. L'Ami Serge has been hurdling so must be doubtful here and, in any case, he was nearly lapped by Camping Ground last time. His best chasing form is not up to the job.
Help. Where have all the credible contenders gone? Alisier d'Irlande beat a weak Grade 3 field last time on heavy ground, having failed to pass a rival in his two previous races; and Simply Ned hasn't won since October 2015 when taking a Class 2 handicap at Kelso.
Tom George has a second potential string to his bow in Sir Valentino. Beaten far enough in a handicap hurdle on his only Cheltenham visit, he has progressed markedly in the last fifteen months, from a rating of 132 to 157. Barring one shocker, when stretching out to 2m6f at Market Rasen in the summer, the eight-year-old has been consistent and - unlike many in the list - has actually won a couple of races.
Beaten five lengths in the Tingle Creek, he was the finisher that day and, over a slightly longer trip on a stiffer track, he might again finish off his race better than most.
I loved Traffic Fluide last season, and thought he was a real player for Champion Chase honours on the back of a big run in the 2016 Clarence House. But he got injured before Cheltenham, and was not seen again until two last placed finishes a week apart in mid-February. He's impossible to fancy off the back of that preparation.
Phew, what a motley crew.
Champion Chase 2017 Pace Map
...will be added after the five day declaration stage.
Champion Chase 2017 Tips
This is 'bar a fall' territory for DOUVAN. He's a winning machine pitted against serial losers. It's hardly fair and, in truth, it won't be a matter of watching a superstar imperiously stroll to victory but, rather, a Grade 1 star trampling all over a field of handicappers.
I'm not in the habit of tipping, or backing, 1/3 shots but I love the 'without' markets. With non-runner no bet on my side, I definitely want a bit of Uxizandre each way at 11/2.
And, much more speculatively, I think Sir Valentino is another who could get rolling late in the play to grab some place money. 8/1 with the same NRNB concession seems fair enough. All the more so if Uxi goes to the Ryanair.
0.5 pts e/w Uxizandre w/o Douvan 11/2 bet365 NRNB
0.5 pts e/w Sir Valentino w/o Douvan 8/1 bet365 NRNB