While a win in the Queen Mother Champion Chase may have so far eluded trainer Willie Mullins, his chances of addressing that rare omission from his CV moved a step nearer after Un De Sceaux gave further notice he is fast becoming the complete package with victory in the Sodexo Clarence House Chase at Ascot on Saturday.
Although falling on his seasonal return at Leopardstown, just as he did at Thurles on his chasing debut, the eight-year-old looked like the machine that tore apart his rivals in last season’s Arkle with a victory that put to one side his previous jumping frailties.
Adopting his customary front-running role, the 1-2 favourite was steadied into the first few fences by Ruby Walsh to ensure there would be no repeat of his previous misfortune.
Jumping economically, rather than exuberantly, Walsh gradually wound the pace up in his bid to register a fourth Grade One success.
Former Champion Chase king Sire De Grugy – winner of this race in 2014 – moved up well over five out, and for a moment it looked as though this season’s Tingle Creek hero may repeat his Sandown efforts.
Those hopes were soon dashed, however, as although for several strides between the final two fences Walsh was forced to get more animated in the saddle aboard Un De Sceaux, he ultimately had too much class for the Gary Moore-trained runner.
Five lengths was the distance between the pair at the line, with a further short head back to Moore’s other runner Traffic Fluide in third.
Un De Sceaux saw his price for the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival reduced dramatically, with William Hill shortening him into 4-5 from 11-8, while both Coral and Boylesports went 4-6 from 6-4 and 11-8 respectively.
Mullins said: “You could see him pricking his over the fences sorting out his stride. I loved the way he was a lot more settled today.
“He wasn’t racing half-cracked, he was just settled into his own rhythm and jumped in his own time.
“I am hoping Sire De Grugy ran well and that they weren’t disappointed, but when you take that level of form it’s looking better for us I imagine.”
He went on: “It’s not as nice for me (watching him) as my heart takes a jump every time, whereas if it’s someone else’s horse you can sit back and enjoy it.
“I won’t be thinking anything, I will go home and think about it then. I am probably happy at leaving it at that. There is nothing that comes to mind (before Cheltenham) and what have we, seven weeks on Tuesday? So I wouldn’t be looking for a race.”
On his enviable battalion of horses at home, Mullins said: “I’m as gobsmacked - and our team at home are as gobsmacked – as you guys. We don’t take it for granted, we look at it and think this is unbelievable. We don’t think it’s a God-given right – we appreciate the horses.”
As for Walsh, who has won the Champion Chase on three previous occasions, he feels it is still too early for Un De Sceaux to be compared with the likes of Master Minded.
He said: “I don’t know, he has to win a Champion Chase before I can say that.
“I was lucky enough to ride Master Minded and Azertyuiop and rode against Moscow Flyer, so I’ve ridden some great horses, but he has all the attributes - he stays really well and has a good turn of foot.
“He was definitely looking (at his fences) a bit more today than he did at Leopardstown, which is probably no harm. A good round of jumping like that will give him confidence.
“Today was important, with such a good horse you want to be winning these big races and with it going wrong in Leopardstown it is great to come and do that.”
While Horsham handler Moore was quick to admit Sire De Grugy was no match for Un De Sceaux, he was far from despondent about the display.
He said: “Obviously he’s not good enough to beat Un De Sceaux, the winner had run the finish out of him and just took the edge out of what he normally finds. The winner is obviously a very good horse.
“I thought I had him at his best, I guess we’ll give the Champion Chase a go. He’s beaten Vibrato Valtat the same distance he has beaten him in every run, so he has held his form. He’s just not improving, but I don’t expect him to at the age of 10.”
As for the performance of novice Traffic Fluide he added: “I’m very pleased with Traffic Fluide and he will go for the Game Spirit now.”
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