The main players as I see it are the following.

SPRINTER SACRE 11/4 : Much has been said by many regarding this horse. Will he ,won’t he come back to his former self ? The race at Ascot on Saturday [Sodexo Chase] gave us many clues as to the answers but still left some grey areas. I wrote here on this site in the past that he would never come back to what he was and I am going to stick with that view now even in the knowledge that he did run a very good number when second to Dodging Bullets. Firstly, we must look very seriously at the very poor record of Nicky Henderson when it comes to the ‘longevity’ of his chasers. I cannot remember too many high class ones  that have kept their form as older, maturing animals,possibly Marlborough being an exception to the rule. Secondly ,Sprinter Sacre has suffered from heart problems and also finished with blood in his nostrils and foaming from his mouth at the Berkshire venue. Smart as Dodging Bullets is it is hard not to imagine that the Sprinter Sacre of old would have been able to beat him. The negatives are stacking up so therefore he is passed over. Someone of you out there might also have a look at those stats of Henderson regarding the chasers and come back to me and let me know if I am mistaken.

SIRE DE GRUGY 9/2 : Admirable type who won a below par Champion last year but in fairness he has been improving with every run and it is hard to crab him. He has been off since routing the field in the 365 Celebration Chase at Sandown in April due to soreness in the hip area but is expected to make his debut next month where the trainer has warned he will need the run.  This year’s race will be stronger than last year’s and there will be many that will still fancy him if connections are giving the right vibes beforehand and he runs well on his reappearance. He can go well fresh and as the current champ he must be respected but I will be looking elsewhere for the winner.

DODGING BULLETS 5/1 : Expertly bought by my sometimes colleague on a few deals, Tom Malone. He deserves great credit for spotting this fellow out of a Sligo handicap. This horse’s rise to the top has been a splendid story of how to have the confidence to put your neck on the line when purchasing a young horse. Well done Tom. Dodging Bullets is a rather easy horse to predict form wise up to and including this season. Since coming to  the master Champion UK  trainer,  he has very good form from October to the end of January but he tails off thereafter. They say he has a different regime this time round regarding diet etc and that he is holding his form better so one has to take him as a serious contender but this is a stronger renewal than last year. I find it hard to change my ways so I have to go with what I have seen in the past and believe the ‘seasonality’ aspect of his form will do for him again come Cheltenham. I hope I am wrong for Tom’s sake and team Ditcheat but I doubt it.

CHAMPAGNE FEVER 8/1 : Absolutely thrives at this meeting, he loves the Spring and has a marked preference for good going. He nearly has the perfect record at the track, winning the Bumper, Supreme and just touched off in a freak result in the Arkle last year so it is obvious he is a major player again. So, knowing the circumstances that suit him best are there any reasons  that can stop him from winning again here ? As I see it there are only two problems for him. Firstly, Don Cossack, but he looks booked for the Ryan Air and secondly the likelihood of being taken on up front at a frenetic pace and there is no doubt that he doesn’t want that. I would like to see him take a lead over this minimum trip and be delivered later. People say he is a ”need to lead” speed merchant but I say no and in that hope of getting even minimal cover this grey has a wonderful chance and is the one to beat.

AL FEROF 11/1 : Difficult to predict and a former Festival winner. He was very impressive first time up this year in the Amlin  before disappointing in the King George. He seems best held up these days and if given a quietish type of ride  and if he really hit  his best day he could go close  but I will pass him over as I simply can’t find a real pattern to his form and he is ten years of age.

UXIZANDRE 16/1 : Cheekpieced and not altogether straightforward I think this horse is dangerous here. He bombed out last time at Leopardstown where he hated the heavy ground and brushed the wings of the fences for some reason so I have to ignore that performance. He was touched of in the JLT last year and won a Listed two miler here in November so he likes the course. He has won fresh but seems a tad better off a recent run and the good ground will further enhance his chance. There will be tonnes of pace on with several front runners of which he is one but if they were to slipstream with Uxizandre this time then he is a major player.

CLARCAM 33/1 : Will surely go for Arkle.

BALDER SUCCES 25/1 : Best on a flat track over two and a half miles and small fields, the complete opposite of what he encounters here. Very smart when he has his correct conditions but very easy to dismiss in this.

DON COSSACK 33/1 : Would by my idea of one of the bets of the meeting if he turned up here but that is most unlikely. The likely ferocious pace would be right up his street and he could pick them up late .Very versatile as regards trip ,ground, field size ,types of tracks, it all seems to come natural to him and he has won 10 of his 19 lifetime starts. He was cruising in the RSA at this meeting last season until exiting at the 14th and looked the likely winner to me. He has improved again this time round being four from four and had Champagne Fever cooked  at Thurles last week when that one capsized at the last. Pity it looks like he is targeted at the other race but if there was a change of plan then I will be jumping off my selection and on to him.

HIDDEN CYCLONE 33/1. Smashing horse that to my mind has been campaigned very badly despite winning ten of his twenty three starts. He is best fresh [ first two runs of the season and a break thereafter of 42 days for each subsequent start] and two miles is his optimum trip.  He has now turned ten though and  has not won since September 2013  but if they do the correct thing and go straight to the Champion then he can run well but  another negative for Hidden Cyclone is he will be one of many forcing the pace and genuine horse that he is I am passing him over.

CAPTAIN CONAN 25/1 : Yet to run this time round and was smart and goes well fresh so that should not be a problem and has a victory over Sire De Grugy. The negative for me is he is trained by Henderson and looks another one of his that is losing his form as he gets older. Not hard to overlook now,

BALLYCASEY 33/1 : The joker in the pack. There has been a lot of hype about this horse, mainly built up by the press only for them to knock him back down again. Ran just twice over this trip, the last time on December 27th when running no sort of race [heavy ground I believe was the problem] and the other time when hammering the smart Mount Colah on good ground at Navan but  I am of the belief there is a massive performance just waiting to be unleashed and it could easily happen in this contest. He lost all his three point to points but on the racecourse proper he has proceeded to win six out of eight starts when fresh . He conforms to Nick Mordin’s rest pattern theory. That mean’s certain horses can only take their first two starts of a campaign but then need a break of forty two days plus between races in order for their constitution to recover and his two defeats when fresh in my opinion can be explained by the fact that he failed to stay three miles in a Grade One at the Punchestown festival and hated the heavy ground at Christmas recently. One of his wins was a comprehensive victory over Don Cossack on heavy ground over two miles five furlongs but the race had only three runners and although meritorious in itself , it might have given connections a false steer as to his distance requirements.In that race they dawdled around for two miles plus before sprinting the last three furlongs. I believe Ballycasey is best over a fast run two miles on a stiff track and the fact that he has stayed further will only help this year due to the many front runners so a blend of speed and stamina is required this year more than most. I suppose the concerns for him are a slight tendency to shift right over his jumps going left handed and that he will probably be one of the prominent racers. Personally I would love to see both Champagne Fever and Ballycasey raced just off the pace and down the brave man’s route down the inside but who am I to suggest anything to his genius trainer .

MR MOLE 33/1 : Seems to be a little more straightforward this season and is another from the Tom Malone academy. His quirks are disappearing and so  his performances as a consequence are improving. I feel he will struggle here though.

HINTERLAND 50/1 : Has some good form in the past but won’t be winning this.

SPECIAL TIARA 25/1 : A need to lead speed merchant but he won’t last long in front.

EDUARD : 33/1 : Has a progressive profile despite his two second place finishes this season and is definitely one of the better outsiders. Cannot be ruled out completely and the pluses for him are his hold up style of racing and the better ground so is bound to be passing tiring rivals late on in what is bound to be a searching gallop.

SIMPLY NED 25/1 : Best fresh and like Eduard [his stablemate] likes to come off a strong pace. Again not impossible to see him running well as he is an improving sort but I would prefer Eduard to him if there is to be a placed horse from Greystoke. Goes on soft but will prefer good.

BRIGHT NEW DAWN 50/1 : Capable of much better form than he has shown so far this campaign but shows his best form when able to dominate and that will not happen here.

I find it difficult to make a case for anymore of the bigger priced entrants. The prices posted are the best available from a variety of bookmakers,

Summary : Assuming that Don Cossack runs in the Ryan Air  I think the winner will come from a group consisting of Champagne Fever, Uxizandre, Ballycasey or Eduard. The Willie Mullins trained pair look the strongest and assuming they turn up I suggest a two points win on CHAMPAGNE FEVER at 8/1 with Hills or Corals and a 1 point win on BALLYCASEY at 33/1 with Bet Victor ,Bet 365 and others.


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