In terms of what they have already achieved, it can be deduced 2013 winner Sprinter Sacre will regain his crown at the expense of reigning champ Sire De Grugy. But, both have had their problems and come here with something to prove.
Following a lay-off of more than a year, Sprinter Sacre made his comeback in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January, and was backed as though a winning return was a formality. However, after travelling up ominously and putting his nose in front, he was ultimately well beaten by Dodging Bullets.
That could be construed as a perfectly satisfactory comeback, or the sign of a superpower on the wane. The soundings from the stable are extremely positive, and rumour of his work matching that of 2013 are rife, but, if there’s a semblance of an issue there’s no better place to expose it than at Cheltenham.
He seems to have been around for a long time, but he’s only a nine-year-old, and quite lightly raced. It’s probably too much to ask him to reach his peak of two seasons ago, but anything within hailing distance of that should be more than good enough.
Sire De Grugy made giant strides last season, culminating in victory in this race. Gary Moore’s horse has never shown the flashy brilliance of Sprinter Sacre, but managed to get the job done more often than not in recent years.
An injury cost him much of this season, and that was apparent on his comeback when he and jockey Jaime Moore parted company at the third last, having looked in trouble at that stage of the Betfair Price Rush Chase at Newbury.
His trainer was keen to restore his confidence, and did so successfully with a previously unscheduled trip to Chepstow just two weeks ago. On soft ground, he showed tenacity and class to run out a comfortable winner, but that race came closer to the Festival than is desirable, and may have left its mark.
Paul Nicholls’ pair, Mr Mole and Dodging Bullets, have both made significant progress through this season, but the former has talent and quirks in equal measure, while Dodging Bullets has to prove he can transfer his recent form to this track.
Old warrior and former winner Sizing Europe can’t be expected to rediscover his glory days, but Simply Ned is an outsider who may be suited by a strong pace over this trip, and could potentially improve enough to reach the frame. Much has been made of Champagne Fever’s Festival record which, admittedly, reads two wins and a narrow defeat in three trips to the Cotswolds. That’s quite impressive, the second of those efforts, in particular, when he beat subsequent Champion Hurdle runner-up My Tent Or Yours in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Clearly, he appreciates a bit of better ground and has no issues with this track, but I can’t get away from the fact that, narrow as the defeat was, he was outbattled by Western Warhorse in last season’s Arkle Chase. There’s nothing to suggest he has taken a giant leap forward to Champion Chase class and, in a half-decent renewal, I’d be confident he could not come out on top.
But that’s the $64,000 question: what level of a renewal is this? If Sprinter Sacre is back to his best, there is no betting. It’s that imponderable which leaves today’s feature open to an upset, but I’m not banking on one.
It’s reasonable for punters to look elsewhere, but the limitations of the alternatives are such that, at odds of 3-1, it could be more profitable to get behind Sprinter Sacre’s bid to return to the top of the chasing tree.