If either Sire De Grugy or Vibrato Valtat don’t beat Un De Sceaux in the Grade One Clarence House Chase on Saturday – they’ve no chance of beating him in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham.
Ascot is a stiff test and you’re always on the climb for the last three-quarters of a mile. It tends to suit strong staying types and Vibrato Valtat and Sire Du Grugy must make the most of their opportunity because Un De Sceaux (below) will have too much speed for them at Cheltenham.
There’s no doubt Willie Mullins’ odds-on favourite sets the standard on Saturday and is the one we have to beat.
But he needs to bounce back after his Leopardstown fall and has hit the deck in two of his six starts over jumps. And Sire De Grugy in particular is among the highest-rated horses he’s ever met.
I guided Dodging Bullets to victory here last year over the odds-on Sprinter Sacre. He proved it was no fluke by becoming the third horse in four years to win the Clarence House Chase and go on to win the Champion Chase. Hopefully he’ll finally reappear at Newbury before trying to defend his crown – but time is getting tight.
We know Un De Sceaux will bolt off in front and I can’t see anyone taking him on for the lead. We’d just end up cutting each others throats. But I’d imagine that Vibrato Valtat – who is crying out for a test of stamina – and Sire Du Grugy will keep tabs on him, creep into the race and hopefully take advantage of any chink in the favourite’s armour.
I start the day off at Ascot on Desert Queen who has to overcome Vroum Vroum Mag in the opener. When I looked at the entries initially, there was nothing I feared but Willie Mullins’ mare is unbeaten in seven starts and has never finished out of the first three.
We’re only a pound below her in the ratings, the ground and trip shouldn’t pose a problem and it would be great to hit the places.
The Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock (2.40pm) is a trial in name only as most of these now look to be just clutching at straws against the Irish – or more particularly Willie Mullins’ powerful challenge – for the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle.
Faugheen put The New One (below) firmly in his place at Kempton over Christmas and with Peace and Co now swerving this for Sandown Nigel Twiston-Davies’ runner can repeat last year’s victory. Personally, I think he could get more joy switching to the World Hurdle rather than the Champion Hurdle as his Cheltenham target.
Earlier on the Haydock card, Paul Nicholls’ Le Prezien puts his Supreme Novice Hurdles credentials on the line. He won by 19 lengths at Doncaster on testing ground and could be anything. But this is tougher.
Best ride of the day
I really fancy Zulu Oscar to run a big race in the 2m 3f hurdle (2.25pm) – but I don’t want to see anymore rain.
He’s progressive, working well, is stepping up in trip and has got a massive chance – provided the ground doesn’t get too tacky.
The further he goes and the better the ground, the more it will suit him. There’s plenty of dangers though like Value at Risk who reverts to hurdles from fences while Nick Gifford’s Theo’s Charm is improving and Nicky Henderson is a master at these competitive handicaps and throws three darts at the board.
Not having it
Haydock sees the three-mile Peter Marsh Chase (3.15pm) and even though Reve De Sivola has been well-punted all week – I can’t have him. He’s back over fences for the first time since 2011 and even though he looks thrown in on 139 (compared to 160 over hurdles) he was never a solid jumper in his younger days.
Seventh Sky was a good winner at the track two starts ago against Spookydooky and looks decent each-way value against the likely favourite and can make his course form on heavy ground count.
The last at Ascot is competitive and again Regal Encore won last time out but his jumping can be hit and miss. You’d struggle to have a strong opinion on it but maybe Royal Regatta’s consistency can pay off for Philip Hobbs stable.