The picture in National Hunt racing can change so quickly. Back in March, everyone said the Champion Chase was the best race of the Festival. It was the defending champion Altior taking on the Willie Mullins superstar Chacun Pour Soi and the coming-of-age Defi Du Seuil. A triple threat match for the ages.
As it transpired, both Altior and Chacun Pour Soi were late absentees, leaving the coast clear for Defi Du Seuil who still managed to fluff his lines spectacularly, kicking it wide in front a gaping open goal. The end result was possibly one of the most unheralded Champion Chase winners of our time in Politologue.
With Defi Du Seuil already well beaten on his seasonal debut and now facing questions about whether he can still be a force, with Altior aged 10 going on 11, and with Chacun Pour Soi’s fragility a clear worry, the end result is a wide-open division, with bookmakers happy to be as big as 9/2 about the Willie Mullins-trained chaser for the championship event in March.
This weekend should see a significant development in said market because not only will we see Altior, and possibly Chacun Pour Soi, but in all there are three races that should provide a platform for prospective challengers to make a case that they have with it takes to challenge for the Champion Chase.
The Tingle Creek, the John Durkan Memorial Chase and the Hilly Way Chase at Cork all have the potential to become important reference points come March.
We largely know about Altior and Chacun Pour Soi, the pros and cons for both, but here are three horses still coming a little under the radar who could make a case for themselves this weekend.
Rouge Vif (Tingle Creek)
It was hard not to be very impressed with Rouge Vif’s performance to defy a mark of 156 in a handicap chase at Cheltenham’s October meeting. Off top weight, he led all the way there and, instead of coming back to the field, or indeed just maintaining the advantage he had, he quickened away from his rivals coming up the hill.
His trainer Harry Whittington says good ground is hugely important to him. His regular rider Gavin Sheehan feels the same, having said that he felt he was beaten in last year’s soft ground Arkle after just two furlongs. It said a lot about the horse that he was able to finish third there in spite of the conditions.
If he gets his preferred ground on Saturday, Rouge Vif could make a very strong Champion Chase case. He is a second-season chaser with just six runs over fences, and is coming off a clear career best. He also has strong two-mile Cheltenham form in the book.
Melon (John Durkan/Hilly Way)
The John Durkan usually serves as a stepping stone for horses going up in trip - think Don Cossack and Sizing John. That could be the case again this year but the temptation will also be there to go the other way, especially when you consider how good the Savills Chase at Leopardstown is shaping up to be.
Melon fought out an epic finish with Samcro in the Marsh Novice Chase at the Festival last season, producing another excellent performance in defeat at Cheltenham. That was just his fourth run over fences and though connections have mused about going up in trip (he has a King George entry), if he can show the turn of foot that was evident during his hurdles career, he’ll be an excellent two-mile chaser.
Second in two Champion Hurdles, he has always been a nearly horse, but clearly has a serious amount of ability and he jumped brilliantly for Patrick Mullins at Cheltenham. Earlier in the season, he was only just beaten by Fakir D’oudairies in a two-mile beginners chase at Navan, when having to concede that runner 8lb.
He’s in the Hilly Way Chase as well, which shows Willie Mullins is leaving all options open. He’s best priced 25/1 for the Champion Chase.
Le Richebourg (John Durkan/Hilly Way)
Le Richebourg was a general 5/2 shot for the 2018 Arkle before a late setback ruled him out of the race. It was expected then that he would be back for last season but he never appeared. It’s pleasing to hear he is back in full training and could well make his return at either Cork or Punchestown this Sunday.
Le Richebourg’s short Arkle odds developed as a result of an excellent novice chase campaign that saw him finish a close second to Delta Work in the Drinmore Novice Chase before moving back in trip for two impressive wins in two-mile Grade 1 wins at Leopardstown.
It’s never easy for a horse to return to his best after a long layoff and, in the case of Le Richebourg, he will be trying to defy a break of 637 days off the track if he does indeed run on Sunday, but he is still only a seven-year-old with just five runs over fences. He doesn’t have many miles on the clock so a big run on Sunday would be very encouraging for the season ahead.