Drying ground at Cheltenham a worry for Un De Sceaux team

Drying ground at Cheltenham is a concern for connections of Un De Sceaux as he prepares to do battle with Sprinter Sacre in what looks set to be an epic Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Drying ground at Cheltenham a worry for Un De Sceaux team

The Willie Mullins-trained eight-year-old is odds-on across the board for the two-mile chasing showpiece, despite the presence of the scintillating 2013 winner Sprinter Sacre, as well as 2014 hero Sire De Grugy and last year’s victor Dodging Bullets.

Triumphant in the Arkle 12 months ago, Un De Sceaux fluffed his lines in the jumping department when coming to grief for a second time at Leopardstown over Christmas, but was far more assured when slamming his rivals, including Sire De Grugy, at Ascot last month.

However, he is set encounter markedly different conditions on the second day of the Festival.

Part-owner Colm O’Connell said: “The ground is drying all the time and my only worry is that at Punchestown last year he didn’t enjoy it too much.

“Everything else is fine, he’s travelled over great.”

Mullins, meanwhile, feels the Ascot performance is evidence his free-going gelding is finally growing up.

He said: “I thought it was the most mature performance I’ve ever seen him put in at Ascot. He was settling, looking at his fences and measuring everything.

“He had plenty in the tank to pull away at the end and I came home from Ascot much happier with how the horse is taking his races.

“What I loved about his win at Ascot was his style of racing. He switched off and sized up his fences instead of charging down and flying out over them.”

Sprinter Sacre looked invincible when annihilating his rivals three years ago and while he has suffered his fair share of problems since, he bounced back to record a heartwarming victory at Prestbury Park in November.

The 10-year-old proved that was no flash in the pan with a more workmanlike victory over Sire De Grugy in Kempton’s Desert Orchid Chase and while trainer Nicky Henderson does not believe his pride and joy will ever scale previous heights, he could not be happier with his current well-being.

Henderson, who got off to a great start to the week as Altior floored the Mullins-trained Min in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, said: “If he was back to his best, he would be the 4-6 chance and Un De Sceaux the 2-1 chance, (but) Sprinter Sacre will never be back to that form.

“When he was at his best he was in a different league. We can’t hope to be there again, but he is as good as he is going to get, I think.

“Un De Sceaux looks very good. If Ruby (Walsh) gets to dictate on him, that will be scary. One thing is for sure, they are going to go a right old gallop.

“He looks great - Nico (De Boinville) felt he was so good at Cheltenham (Shloer Chase) first time out this season, we did have him very fit as it was the acid test. He was probably fresher and better at Cheltenham than he was at Kempton at Christmas.

“He would be a sharper horse now than at Cheltenham the first time and I think he would be a better horse than at Kempton. Also, he likes Cheltenham better than Kempton.

“The gap has narrowed between Sprinter Sacre and the herd, but they haven’t caught him yet. He is nicely aggressive at the moment - he wants to do it - his attitude is great.

“We are able to get there this year on his terms, without having to rush anything. It has been a good journey. The appreciation he got from the crowd at Cheltenham in November was great.

“I said to Nico first time out ‘don’t disappoint him, if he wants to take you, great’. He went up the hill and suddenly took off, like he used to, and the race was dead in 10 strides. He got a bit tired in the end, but that is where we can find a little more.

“Somebody, someday, has got to get upsides Un De Sceaux and see what happens. I hope it will be us.”

Sire De Grugy enjoyed a brilliant campaign two seasons ago, but endured a tougher time last term and was only fourth when defending his crown.

He showed he was no back number when winning the Tingle Creek at Sandown in December, though, and has run well in defeat behind Sprinter Sacre and Un De Sceaux the last twice.

Trainer Gary Moore contemplated fitting his stable star with blinkers for his return to Cheltenham, but eventually decided against using headgear.

“We thought about the blinkers, but we didn’t feel they’d make any difference to him,” said Moore.

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