It was billed as a dress rehearsal for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but if that’s how it’s going to go, the race will provide all the drama of the Shipping Forecast. What was shaping up to be a two horse race with a few lively outsiders is now more like a one horse race with one more lively outsider after the weekend. Here’s a look at how the betting has unfolded over the course of the season with the hope of guessing what’s gonna go down in Cheltenham next month.
Somersby is a case in point and his win in the Victor Chandler Chase marked him as a potential winner of the Champion Chase. He’s more likely to be a potential valiant loser of a Champion Chase, but it shows upsets are possible.
Ever since he bounded up the Cheltenham hill to claim the 2011 Champion Chase, Sizing Europe has been fancied to defend his title. He’s got the speed, he’s in form and he likes Cheltenham almost as much as an Irishman who only gets one trip a year away from his wife – it’s all looking good. Even though he won and lost his first two engagements of the campaign to defend his title at Gowran Park and Down Royal respectively, his price for the Champion Chase remained steady. It did get a little bit shorter thanks to his impressive victory in the Tingle Creek, but as the quality of the opposition on that day was as questionable as a fortnight in Syria, it didn’t result a dramatic shortening of his price. Going head to head with Big Zeb in the Tied Cottage Chase was always going to give us a better idea of where he stands. He stands quite a bit ahead of Big Zeb as it turns out and he’s now the hot 11/10 favourite for the Champion Chase.
Finian’s Rainbow came up slightly short in his attempts to win his Arkle, but ‘the not really the same’ compensation came when he claimed the Maghull Novices’ Chase at the end of last season. Since then he’s been considered a contender for the Champion Chase, but only recently has he been considered a genuine contender. He was a not completely hopeless 8/1 until December, but his win in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas saw that price come in and even though he was beaten by Somersby in the Victor Chandler Chase, it was still an impressive enough defeat to see another snip of his price and when Big Zeb disappointed at Punchestown, he was elevated to position of 2nd Favourite for the Champion Chase and the horse considered most likely to throw a spanner in hooves of Sizing Europe.
Talk of age catching up with Big Zeb has been around since he was caught laughing at a Tom O’Connor monologue on Countdown – or more likely the moment he turned 11 earlier this year. His performances this season – two gutsy wins over Noble Prince – hadn’t suggested he was on the wane, but the Tied Cottage Chase was a real disappointment. As any grandparent who has inadvertently put the cat in the fridge and the milk in the garden one day only to find themselves in a care home the next can tell you, people are a lot less willing to put things to a once-off blip as you get older. Big Zeb hasn’t become a bad horse overnight, but he may have become a ‘not good enough to win a Champion Chase’ horse overnight. Only once in the last 34 years has a horse aged 11 or older won the Champion Chase, so there is valid reason for the note of caution. Moscow Flyer was the horse to defy the onset of age, but since he was such an exception to any rule, it’s probably best to ignore that. Zeb is still capable of regaining his title, but he is going to need to rediscover his form urgently and time is running out for that.
If Cheltenham honours were handed out for consistently gutsy and honourable performances, Somersby would be a legend. That pointless system of deciding things would make Cheltenham a lot less exciting, so thankfully they don’t and instead Somersby is one of those regular contenders who never embarrasses himself in high class company, but doesn’t win a whole lot. His flitting between distances hasn’t helped his cause, but neither has his never actually winning a big race. That changed in January when he upset the young upstarts to claim the Victor Chandler Chase. A decent showing when 4th to the record breaking Kauto Star in the King George meant he was already on course to go Cheltenham to be an also ran in one of the big chases, but that victory at Ascot means he’s going to Cheltenham as a potential winner of the Champion Chase. He’s been around for a while, but he’s still only 8, so he could be open to improvement.
I’ve included Peddler’s Cross in this, despite the fact it’d be a massive surprise if he didn’t take his chance in the novice company of the Arkle Chase. There’s a couple of reasons for that, firstly he’s a novice and fully entitled to go that route and secondly, he hasn’t yet shown the shame high class ability over fences that he had over hurdles. Although his narrow defeat to Hurricane Fly last year brought an end to a run of 6 wins on the bounce over hurdles, it showed he was top class. As yet, he hasn’t reached that level over fences, but as he’s only learning his trade over the birch, we’ll spare him a merciless mocking. His performances haven’t been bad, but a sound trouncing at the hands of Sprinter Sacre at Kempton over Christmas showed he’s still got improving to do before tackling the very best in the division.
Playing the role of the horse we just about had enough space to include on the graph is the aptly named Wishfull Thinking. All of his winning has been done at races beyond the 2 miles of the Champion Chase and only this season he’s been handed beatings by several of the horses rated has having a better chance of winning this race, so maybe only back him if you choose your horses solely on the possibility of the name sounding fittingly ironic in your post-race pub stories.