With second-favourite Sprinter Sacre back to winning ways this season but still a long way below his best, it was a merited move by the bookmakers. Ruby Walsh, aboard the Eddie O’Connell-owned Un De Sceaux, kept control of his mount for most of the trip, likely more concerned about a clear round than an exuberant display.
And the eight-year-old duly delivered such a performance: clinical but unspectacular, yet perfect as a prep, and worrying for those preparing to take him on in March.
There is, almost certainly, more to come and if he produces a round of jumping like that which he produced in last season’s Arkle, it’s hard to imagine any of his ageing rivals will be able to match him.
One horse who emerged with real credit from Saturday’s race was the six-year-old Traffic Fluide. He failed by the minimum margin to get to stable companion and former Champion Chaser Sire De Grugy, and yet this was just his tenth career start, sixth in Britain, and first of this season.
He ended last term finishing third behind Sizing Granite in the Grade 1 Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree, and is clearly heading in the right direction. Cheltenham’s more demanding two miles may bring further improvement, and he could provide that extra breath of fresh air in a division which looks quite stale.
Reigning champ Dodging Bullets hasn’t been seen winning this race in 2015 and, thus, cannot be on the radar at this stage. He left plenty of previous disappointments at Cheltenham behind when getting it right in March, but that looked anything but a vintage renewal, and he will do very well to join the illustrious list of multiple winners, which includes Master Minded, Moscow Flyer, Viking Flagship, Barnbrook Again, Badsworth Boy, Hilly Way and Fortria.
Another which hasn’t enjoyed a trouble-free time recently is former Neptune Hurdle and Arkle Chase winner Simonsig. Nicky Henderson’s grey finished second behind stable companion Bobs Worth over hurdles at Aintree in November, on his first start in more than two and a half years.
That left as many questions as answers and given, in any case, he would need a career-best effort, it would be a remarkable training feat to produce him at that level. He looks plenty short enough at around the 12-1 mark.
Un De Sceaux may not convince everyone with his jumping, but limited evidence suggests those frailties surface when he’s fresh. He was brought to a peak for this meeting last season, and looks on target to do likewise.
He looks banker material, but is far too short in the betting to interest most ante-post punters. With that in mind, the best play may be in the ‘chances’ market, where the progressive Traffic Fluide commands plenty of respect.