One of less enticing elements of this year’s Cheltenham Festival is the fact three of the four championship races have a predictable look.
It’s impossible to look past Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle, Un De Sceaux is the hot favourite in the Champion Chase while Thistlecrack will be hard to deny in the World Hurdle.
The Gold Cup looks wide open but it’s far from impossible that the favourites in the other three championship races will run out emphatic victors.
Processions can sometimes be glorious but generally it takes at least two horses to make a compelling spectacle.
For that reason, it would be great to see Sprinter Sacre put it up to Un De Sceaux.
The ‘Black Aeroplane’ is clearly not the extraordinary force of nature he was when he won this race in scintillating style three years ago. At the time he was unbeatable.
However, a lengthy lay-off sparked by a heart problem shattered the aura of invincibility.
When he was pulled up in far from vintage Champion Chase last year it was hard to escape the sense his time had been and gone.
Honourable retirement seemed to beckon.
Now, however, the picture looks a little different.
Nicky Henderson’s pride and joy has produced two of most uplifting moments of the National Hunt season, winning the Shloer Chase in imperious style in November before digging deep to beat Sire De Grugy at Kempton over Christmas.
Granted, he was getting weight from all his rivals in the Shloer Chase and, yes, he did make heavy weather of beating a rival in Sire De Grugy who was subsequently well and truly put in his place by Un De Sceaux in the Clarence House.
However, the fact remains Sprinter Sacre will arrive at Cheltenham on Champion Chase on the back of two morale-boosting wins.
He hasn’t run since Christmas so will arrival at Cheltenham a fresh horse. Those factors are positives.
Can he beat the favourite? In his prime he undoubtedly could and probably would.
This, however, is not his prime and even if he hadn’t encountered his heart problems, age would be against him.
Sprinter Sacre is now a 10-year-old, two years older than Un De Sceaux, and no horse over the age of nine has won this race since Moscow Flyer prevailed as an 11-year-old in 2005.
Unless Un De Sceaux’s exuberance causes him to fall, victory should be beyond Sprinter Sacre.
However, in a weak division he looks the biggest threat to Un De Sceaux and he can provide a searching examination.
His chances would be boosted if the weather picks up as Un De Sceaux has looked a little less comfortable on drier ground. There was a moment in last year’s Arkle Trophy where he looked vulnerable before pulling away and he was certainly below his best when winning at Punchestown at the end of last season.
You sense the better the ground, the better Sprinter Sacre’s chances and if he can reproduce the effort he delivered in the Shloer Chase he might well give Un De Sceaux a tougher test than many anticipate.
In doing so a procession would be transformed into a genuine contest.
It would be compelling viewing.
Sprinter Sacre is a past great, Un De Sceaux’s time has come, says Tommy Lyons
Taking a literal reading of official ratings, there isn’t a whole lot between Un De Sceaux and Sprinter Sacre – five pounds, in fact, in favour of the Willie Mullins-trained runner – and such difference is reflected in the current ante-post market for the Champion Chase.
But, the figures mask the fact they are two horses whose career paths are heading in very different directions, a point which will be borne out in a month’s time.
At Sprinter Sacre’s best he was scintillating. Who can forget his Arkle victory over Cue Card in 2012, or Champion Chase stroll over former champ Sizing Europe, in 2013? But his unblemished record over fences hit the buffers on his seasonal debut in late 2013, at Kempton, when he was pulled up in a race won by Sire De Grugy, after which he missed more than a year with a defibrillating heart.
While last season wasn’t a total write-off and this term has been more encouraging, rediscovering his best form has, as yet, proved beyond him.
It was a fantastic performance by horse and trainer to get him back to winning ways on his seasonal debut, in November, and greater still to see he maintained a winning desire when getting the better of Sire De Grugy at Kempton last time.
But that was two former champions, two old rivals and warriors, slogging it out in a pulsating finish to a race which should have limited bearing on the Champion Chase.
That Sprinter Sacre could summon the extras for that flying leap at the last, and for that dogged determination for the battle from the back of the last spoke volumes for his heart, but one could not help thinking the brilliance which once radiated from the Network gelding had gone forever. This was workmanlike, not exuberant. The exposed Vibrato Valtat, with no pretensions to being a champion chaser, was never quite shook off.
To offer chance at comparison, runner-up Sire De Grugy took on Un De Sceaux next time out, at Ascot. Game as his effort was, he was no match for the latter, and just held off the challenge of an up-and-coming star from his own stable, Traffic Fluide, for second place, five lengths behind the winner.
Unfortunately for connections and for the race itself, Traffic Fluide has since been ruled out of the Champion Chase.
Un De Sceaux, much like Sprinter Sacre when he was an emergent chaser, has a perfect record over fences in completed starts but, unlike Sprinter Sacre, has not delivered a performance that ranks him amongst the greats.
He may never do so, but that should not matter. As he did last season, in the Arkle, we can expect him to produce his best at the Cheltenham Festival.
He may not have the swagger of the former champ, and may never scale the same heights, but this is his first season out of novice company, and he has already shown himself to be pretty damn good when he puts it all together.
The 5lbs which is between them on official figures will stretch following the Champion Chase, and thereafter continue to grow.
Sprinter Sacre, I can’t help feeling, is the past. Time to move over and let Un De Sceaux take centre stage, before Douvan steps up to reignite the division.