Willie Mullins has won this race the past couple of years, firstly with the brilliant Vautour before Un De Sceaux produced a really entertaining display last season. The latter bids to retain his title this year in what looks like a stronger renewal. Michael O’Leary who’s company Ryanair sponsor this contest, has yet to win it with any of his strong Gigginstown ammunition and will be hoping to finally get his hands on the trophy with Balko Des Flos.
No better place to start than with the reigning champ Un De Sceaux who is surely the most likely winner. He’s won at 2 festivals and was second behind Sprinter Sacre in the other, this 8-time Grade 1 winner is all class and he’s so exciting to watch. There is still a little bit of 5/2 available and in my view that is generous, he seems to be a favourite that people are looking to take on and I don’t really know why, if he was 6/4 then I’d get it. He was perhaps tying up a little bit towards the back end of the race last season when Sub Lieutenant closed on him but I’m not one for reading too much into that. The form of last seasons race isn’t anything to shout about but after all you can only beat what’s in front of you.
The winner for me if he lines up is Waiting Patiently, I put him up as one of my horses to follow at the start of the season and he certainly hasn’t let me down. I’ve been a huge fan of his since he went chasing and think he could be one of the best around. There was no hiding place in that Ascot Chase and he cantered up to Cue Card with Brian Hughes looking around for dangers, I think there was still some left under the bonnet at the line. He also disposed of Politologue in ready fashion last season so you can’t argue with his form or the clock (regarding the Ascot Chase). With Un De Sceaux likely to set a relentless pace for him to aim at this race would likely set up perfectly for the son of Flemensfirth. I’m on him NRNB and I’ll be going in again if he takes his chance, but sadly this looks more unlikely than likely at present. The recent weather may well give Ruth Jefferson something more to think about, might I’m not holding out too much hope and who am I to argue with them. If they prolong his career and he wins multiple Grade 1’s until he’s 10 then good on them for not folding to the Cheltenham pressure.
Balko Des Flos is a horse I’ve been hearing a lot about over the past couple of weeks and quite a few people seem to fancy him but I’m a bit lukewarm on him to be honest. He’s clearly improved this campaign, he won the Galway Plate in no uncertain terms and his second behind Road To Respect in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase is undoubtedly a strong piece of form. He came down 4 out in the JLT last year so it’s impossible to know where he would have finished, but this is a good Grade 1 and in my opinion at 7/1, there are better each way shouts.
Speaking of general 7/1 shots, the remarkable Cue Card ran an absolute blinder in the Ascot Chase last month, showing his old zest by jumping brilliantly out in front. He only got gunned down by a very talented improver 5 years his junior that day and on that showing would have every chance of being in the frame here. If he were to get his head in front I don’t think there would have been be a bigger cheer since Sprinter won the Champion Chase back in 2016, it would just be extraordinary to see and whether you’d backed him or not, you’d be happy. I just have a nagging feeling that the Ascot Chase might have taken quite a lot out of him and he could pay for that here. However, I do think this is the right race at the festival for him as opposed to the Gold Cup.
Top Notch was disappointing at Ascot in February given his record at the track but he didn’t look himself to me. Usually he is a really efficient jumper but he made a number of errors that day which is unlike him, he also been a horse that has come on for a run in the past three seasons and he’d had a 65 day break prior to that run. I’m not saying that it was a prep run but I think he’ll come on a fair bit for it. His record at the festival is impressive with a second in the Triumph Hurdle before finishing fifth in Annie Power’s Champion Hurdle as a five year old (we know how tough it is for five year olds in that race) prior to a second in last season JLT despite missing the penultimate fence. Already a Grade 1 winner in the Scilly Isles, you could say that wasn’t a vintage Grade 1 but the runner up Baron Alco finished second to none other than Road To Respect at the festival on his next start. Last years JLT form is strong along with his dismantling of Double Shuffle (second in the King George subsequently) and Frodon (17 length Grade 3 winner subsequently) at Ascot in November where he was electric, so in my view he has quite a bit to recommend him. He’s a very talented horse and if he jumps with his usual efficiency I think he’ll go well.
A model of consistency throughout his career, Cloudy Dream has only ever finished outside of the top 2 on a couple of occasions and even then he finished third. However what is slightly concerning is that he’s only won three times in eleven starts over fences and only one of those has been in a graded contest. This race may well play out exactly how he’d like it, a fast pace in which he can be held up off and pick up the pieces late on. He’s been travelling well over 3 miles in recent starts but hasn’t seemed to have found anything for pressure so I expect this drop in trip to suit him. His form is rock solid and on better ground I think we’ll see a better horse but chances are he’ll again find one or two just that bit too good.
The last horse I want to quickly touch upon is Frodon, who I have a sneaky feeling there could be a bit of money for on the day given his course form and his Ascot Chase performance. But I’d say Top Notch will reverse that form and I’m not quite sure he’ll be good enough to make the frame in this quality of race.
If Waiting Patiently turns up, he wins. If he doesn’t then it’s hard to look past Un De Sceaux who is rock solid. I fancy Top Notch to run a big race and can see Cloudy Dream running on well late in the day but whether he has enough to win I wouldn’t be sure. The Un De Sceaux – Top Notch – Cloudy Dream tricast would pay nicely…