Sire a Champion bet
Will Hayler puts emotion aside and unpicks the ante-post market for the BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase.
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With more than eight weeks still to go before the start of the Cheltenham Festival, it is to some extent inevitable that the task of unravelling some of the betting markets hinges upon second-guessing whether particular horses will or will not make the final line-up. That's the nature of the ante-post beast, right?
True enough, but while the prospects of Big Buck's bidding for a fifth victory in the World Hurdle look a little more encouraging after his recent racecourse gallop and will become much clearer after his run in the Cleeve Hurdle later this month, the picture with Sprinter Sacre is some way hazier.
We know he's back in training with Nicky Henderson and we know that he is being prepared for the BetVictor Champion Chase, but we also know that every pair of eyes in the stable is going to be watching him like a hawk for the one bad step or faltering stride that will see him ruled out for the rest of the season and sent off for a leisurely summer's break in a lush field.
Bookmakers have to try and factor the possibility of him not lining up into their prices, but I'm not sure they've got the calculations quite right.
Take Sky Bet's 10/11 - biggest price of the major firms - for example. I'm going to estimate that Sprinter Sacre's price if he lined up would be about 1/2. (Yes, he was 1/4 last year, but I could see the sense of vulnerability that now comes over his chances prompting a trainer or two to throw an arrow into the race, even if he does line up - a notion supported by entries in the race for the likes of Hinterland and Al Ferof.)
I don't believe his chances of lining up are anywhere near as good as the probabilities reflected in the difference between 10/11 and 1/2.
So even if shopping for the best odds around, taking anything odds-on about Sprinter Sacre winning the race at this stage makes essentially no appeal. I'd want 6/4 at least about a horse who surely has no better than a 50/50 chance of lining up.
Of course, a couple of firms are offering prices 'with a run', but again I'm not particularly interested in tieing up money at odds only marginally better than are likely to be on offer on the day - especially given that he's just the sort of horse who publicity-hungry firms will be keen to 'get' on raceday with inflated prices.
So, here I am, hard-headed punter as oppose to weak-kneed racing fan, willing to put a line through the very same horse who reduced me to tears with his awesome displays of dominance on more than one occasion last season. Betting is an emotionless business.
The lack of an entry for Cue Card leaves Sire De Grugy - whose trainer and jockey have both expressed concerns over the track for their star performer - as being the only other horse trading at less than double-figures.
My long-term reader (Thanks Mum) will know that I've been a huge fan of this horse all season long and have as a result collected three out of four times. Maybe he doesn't owe me anything more now, but I'm still not convinced we've seen the best of him over fences.
He's far more fluent at his fences when racing at a faster pace and all but pulled himself up when clearly in front far too soon after Sprinter Sacre's departure at Kempton last time out - anyone who constructs their case against him by taking a literal reading of that victory over Oiseau De Nuit is barking up the wrong tree.
Is he happier on a flatter track? Well, possibly, but he's definitely capable of jumping better than when beaten by Kid Cassidy at this track at the Open meeting and I'm sure that Jamie Moore wouldn't be as quick to chase down Special Tiara (likely to reoppose here, according to Henry De Bromhead, and in the process ensure the field goes a good gallop in the early stages) should the circumstances arise again.
Sire De Grugy did not get the credit he deserved for winning the Tingle Creek Chase and although beating Somersby and Captain Conan by four and three lengths probably isn't form that's good enough to win most Champion Chases, this isn't most Champion Chases.
Captain Conan is a 12/1 chance and that's a fair price if he lines up, but he'll surely swerve a clash with stablemate Sprinter Sacre.
Sizing Europe takes the eye at a remarkable 25/1, given his Festival record and the fact that he was second-best behind Sprinter Sacre last year.
He's been bitterly disappointing in his last couple of starts and looked to have an unneccesarily hard time last time when unconvincing at his fences at Leopardstown over Christmas.
But the return to the home of jumps racing, spring ground and a bit of sun on his back might just make all the difference to Sizing Europe. Yes he's 12 now, but Moscow Flyer won this at 11 and I don't think I'd want to be a layer at that price.
Arvika Ligeonniere has been mooted for this race by both Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh and undoubtedly has plenty of talent.
However I don't like the fact that when he gets out of rhythm at his fences or when coming under maximum pressure, the long, raking stride he uses so effectively in the middle of his races suddenly starts to look a hinderance rather than a help, as was the case both last time out behind Benefficient and at last year's Festival.
Al Ferof rates a most interesting option for those betting with bookmakers offering concessions on non-runners. Realistically, he looks far more likely to take his chance in the Ryanair or the Gold Cup, but might just enjoy bowling around here in a fast-run two miles, especially if the going is soft.
Benefficient's starting point in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby hardly suggested that connections saw him as a two-mile prospect this season, but it's worth remembering that one of the owners suggested rather publicly after victory in last year's Jewson Chase that with hindsight they wished they'd gone for the Arkle.
However, it's not hard to crab the form of his victory in the Dial-A-Bet with Sizing Europe below-par and Kid Cassidy running no sort of race.
Runner-up Hidden Cyclone, whose trainer unsuccessfully appealed to get the race on appeal, is a decent enough horse but was held fair and square by Johns Spirit and Colour Squadron in the Paddy Power Chase on his previous start. Can that sort of form really be good enough here?
It seems to go against the grain to advise a selection at 4/1 who isn't even guaranteed to line up, but I really do think Sire De Grugy is the most solid selection in this race.
Even if Sprinter Sacre makes it to the line-up, Sire De Grugy isn't going to be sent off at a much bigger price having been returned at 4/1 against the same rival when taking the Desert Orchid Chase.
Gary Moore has been fairly lukewarm on the race in every interview on the Champion Chase, but that's his style - he's not the sort of man to shout his chances from the rooftops.
Prize money seems to be a driving force in the decision-making process, and as Moore said at the start of the season, there are undoubtedly big pots to be won in France, but probably not as big as the first prize of £199,325 for this contest.
I think Sire De Grugy will run in the Champion Chase, I think the race will be run to suit him and I think he'll give backers who take the 4/1 now (even bigger available in a couple of places) a really good run for their money whether Sprinter Sacre runs or not.