Conan looks a Champion wager
Simon Holt previews the action on day two of the Cheltenham Festival and is prepared to take on Sire De Grugy.
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A BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase much weakened by the defection of last year's brilliant winner Sprinter Sacre can provide consolation for the Nicky Henderson team with CAPTAIN CONAN looking an able deputy.
Fifth to Benefficient in the Jewson over two and a half miles here last year when fading up the hill, he was impressive at that distance next time at Aintree but is probably ideally suited by two miles on a stiff course.
On one run this season, Captain Conan has ground to make up on Sire De Grugy who beat him just over seven lengths into third in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown (Somersby second) but one senses that wasn't quite his best form and, as a novice last year, he beat Sire De Grugy by a comfortable two lengths over this course and distance.
A horse of great scope who has always looked capable of landing a major prize, he will arrive here very fresh and, if back to his best, could take all the beating.
Sire De Grugy is the obvious threat to all after an excellent campaign which has seen Gary Moore's stable star win four of his five races but there remains a slight question mark over his suitability for Cheltenham having been beaten by Captain Conan here last year and by Kid Cassidy over the course and distance in November.
It's possible he was in front too soon on the latter occasion, thereby softened up and unable to resist the winner's late charge, and under greater restraint this time, he should turn those tables.
On the Tingle Creek form, Somersby must surely enter the mix but his tendency to make the odd jumping error resurfaced at Ascot last time and he always looks in top gear over this trip despite finishing second to Sizing Europe in the 2010 Arkle here.
The last named, now 12 years old, has revisited the Festival with three subsequent appearances in this race winning in 2011, finishing second in a rough and tumble finish with Finians Rainbow a year later and proving no match for Sprinter Sacre 12 months ago.
There are signs that Sizing Europe's powers might be fading though his record at the meeting is hard to entirely ignore.
Fellow Irish raiders Arvika Ligeonniere and Baily Green cannot be discounted. The first-named is a fine jumper who has been very impressive on occasions but less so when racing left handed. Pulled up in the Arkle last year, he was a beaten favourite when only third to Benefficient at Leopardstown two outings ago, again showing signs of jumping right handed (as in the past) and it remains to be seen if he produces his best.
Baily Green ran the race of his life at this meeting last year when chasing home Simonsig in the Arkle and a reproduction of that effort, while not quite repeated subsequently, could again see him in the mix.
Paul Nicholls has re-routed Hinterland for this race from the Arkle and, not surprisingly, this looks tougher. The six-year-old has done nothing wrong this season boasting two victories at Sandown but needs to improve again and Module, who narrowly defeated Nicholls' Dodging Bullets at Newbury last time, looks to have stronger claims.
The Tom George-trained gelding finished just ahead of Captain Conan when fourth to Benefficient here last year but, unlike the selection, might prove better suited by further than two miles if the ground dries out.
On a hugely competitive card, it may be best to seek each-way value and there is no more consistent horse in the RSA Chase field than MANY CLOUDS.
Oliver Sherwood's charge, a really good-looking chasing type, rarely runs a bad race and gets a pull at the weights with O'Faolains Boy who beat him in the Reynoldstown Chase at Ascot last time.
Typically, Many Clouds was keeping on well at the finish that day and, in one of the most searching races at the meeting, should still be galloping up the hill.
There are some highly promising Irish raiders here including Ballycasey, Don Cossack and Carlingford Lough, who contested a useful event at Leopardstown last time (in which the last named looked unlucky to unseat Tony McCoy at final fence), as well as the promising Morning Assembly who may well appreciate the drying ground.
Smad Place, third in two World Hurdles, has taken well to fences and is another leading contender.
Later on, FAR WEST could appreciate a step up in distance in the Coral Cup.
The Paul Nicholls-trained five-year-old, who stayed on best of the rest when chasing home runaway winner Our Conor in the Triumph Hurdle here 12 months ago, looked ready for more ground before falling at the final flight in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury last month when he was again keeping on.
This is a fierce handicap but Far West's earlier second to Melodic Rendezvous at Wincanton this season was a fair effort and, with improvement anticipated over this two miles and five furlongs trip, he shouldn't be far away.