With Nicky Henderson’s reigning champion Sprinter Sacre the biggest absentee of the week from this year’s Festival after suffering a heart condition earlier this season, the two-mile chasing division has gone from being a one-horse show to a wide-open affair.
The Gary Moore-trained Sire De Grugy has undoubtedly taken up the mantle as the one to beat following victories in the Tingle Creek at Sandown, the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton and the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, with each effort more impressive than the last in the hands of the trainer’s son, Jamie.
The eight-year-old’s one defeat this season was at Prestbury Park, however, when beaten by Nicky Henderson’s fellow Champion Chase contender Kid Cassidy, and he was also behind the champion trainer’s other leading hope, Captain Conan, in novice company at the track in November 2012.
Moore said: “The horse is fine. I wouldn’t say he’s better than he’s been all season, but I think he’s as good as he was going into the race at Ascot. Hopefully that will be good enough.
Head lad Corky Brown has long told anyone who would listen that Captain Conan is the best horse in the Henderson yard.
He was sent off 7-4 joint-favourite with Sire De Grugy for the Tingle Creek, his first run since landing a Grade One at Aintree last April.
However, he was beaten seven and a quarter lengths and has been sidelined since.
Henderson revealed Captain Conan was suffering from a “clinical problem” afterwards and there is growing confidence the seven-year-old can turn the tables on Moore’s runner.
“He is better now than when last we saw him,” said Henderson.
“He has worked well and schooled well, and has had two racecourse gallops – everything’s been right and I would have to admit he’d be one of my A-team for the week. I am serious about that.”
The Irish challenge is headed by Arvika Ligeonniere, who has struck four times at Grade One level but has undoubtedly shown his absolute best on right-handed tracks.
Willie Mullins’ charge was pulled up after running no sort of race in last year’s Arkle Trophy, but his trainer is hopeful of a better showing 12 months on.
Mullins said: “He was disappointing last year in the Arkle. We’re hoping we can put that behind us, but the soft ground we anticipated for him hasn’t materialised.
“Going left-handed probably isn’t ideal, but we’re hoping he can overcome that and run well in an open race.”
Henry de Bromhead saddles Cheltenham favourite Sizing Europe and Grade One winner Special Tiara.
Sizing Europe has won the Arkle and Champion Chase and has filled the runner-up spot in this race for the last two years, but disappointed at Leopardstown last time and is getting on as a 12-year-old.
De Bromhead said: “His record round Cheltenham is second to none.
“Obviously he’s 12 now, but we’ll see. If he recaptures the form shown against Sprinter Sacre at Punchestown (last season), we’d be delighted.”
“With Special Tiara, the better the ground, the better he’ll run. He has some good form with Sire De Grugy and some of those guys, so I think he has a really good chance.