Know Your Race - Champion Chase

Know Your Race – Champion Chase

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Know Your Race - Champion Chase
Matt Tombs is back with another edition of Know Your Race.

Of the 4 championship races, the Champion Chase is the simplest to understand. 2m chasing is the most specialist division in national hunt racing – it’s all about jumping at a breakneck gallop. However, many punters misunderstand the Champion Chase.

The most commonly held misconception is that you need a 2½m horse. Given how fast they go, a true 2½m horse just won’t be able to go the gallop. That sort of ‘stayer’ won’t be able to make up the ground either – can you ever recall a horse getting outpaced and then staying on past tiring rivals to win a Champion Chase? The nearest I’ve seen was Flagship Uberalles on rain softened ground in 2002. He’d won 3 Tingle Creek’s, so was a fast horse – it was more a case of him travelling lazily and not jumping fluently, rather than not being able to go the gallop.

Obviously any horse needs to get up the hill – there have occasionally been high-class 2 milers that haven’t really stayed the trip, (Latalomne, Cenkos and Get Real spring to mind,) but stamina is rarely an issue.

Perhaps this misconception results from the fact many Champion Chasers have previously won over further. Top class horses are often good enough to win at a variety of distances – eg several Champion Chase winners have won the 2m4f Grade 1 Melling Chase. It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that by winning the Melling Chase a Champion Chaser is equally effective at 2m4f. Champion Chasers might stay further than 2m, but at the time of their victory they are almost always in essence fast, 2 milers.

The key attributes needed are speed, and the ability to jump at it.

Taking speed first, invariably contenders ran over hurdles. Because they go quicker due to the smaller obstacles – hurdles form is often a good guide to how much basic toe 2m chasers have. It’s rare for horses that were exposed as less than smart 2 mile hurdlers, to win a Champion Chase.

If you look at the 9 horses to have won the Champion Chase in the last decade, 3 won Grade 1 hurdles over 2m. Moscow Flyer and Sizing Europe won open Grade 1s. Newmill won a novice Grade 1, (and was 3rd in an open 2m Grade 1 the season he won the Champion Chase.)

Some Champion Chasers never competed in open company over hurdles but showed smart form as novices. Sprinter Sacre was a close 3rd in the Supreme (rated 149). Voy Por Ustedes (rated 145) went chasing at 4 but was deemed quick enough to run in the Kingwell as a juvenile. Finian’s Rainbow was trickier to assess. He’d been competing at around 2½m as a novice hurdler, (1l 3rd in a Grade 1 novice, rated 145). I tipped him when he won the Champion Chase partly because I thought he’d been a non-stayer as a younger horse, (even in the previous season’s Arkle he’d looked sure to win, with Barry Geraghty looking round for dangers, only to fade up the hill,) but by then had strengthened up and was seeing his races out better.

Sire De Grugy was more exposed than most Champion Chasers over hurdles, rated 147 after 10 starts. He was a bit like Finian’s Rainbow though in that he didn’t look to be seeing out a strongly run 2m in his younger days, (even in his Champion Chase winning season there were doubts about him getting up the hill).

Some Champion Chasers had brief careers over hurdles and never got the chance to show smart form. Master Minded ran 3 times as a 3-year-old before going chasing at 4. Big Zeb was a later starter, running 3 times as a 6-year-old over timber before going chasing.

Those recent winners demonstrate the importance of speed – all of them either showed smart to top class form in hurdle races, or didn’t have the opportunity to do so. Those that didn’t have that opportunity, had run in top 2m chases and demonstrated their speed there. Any horse that didn’t have the toe to be at least smart in 2m hurdles is very unlikely to be quick enough for a Champion Chase. The caveat is to be careful of horses that weren’t strong enough to really see out a fast run 2m early in their career. Working out which horses weren’t getting home and which just weren’t good enough is the hard part.

The second half of the equation is jumping. It’s a truism that modern-day punters have a massive advantage in being able to watch replays of races free on the internet. When assessing the Champion Chase, watch how the horses jumped at speed in their previous races, (especially on decent ground where they often go a gallop not dissimilar to Champion Chase pace.)

Occasionally winners are almost flawless jumpers – Master Minded and Sprinter Sacre looked bomb-proof in their pomp because you knew they had the speed and they never seemed to make mistakes. By contrast, Moscow Flyer was unbeatable for 4 seasons, except when blundering away his chances, which he did in 7 of those 25 races.

A more interesting example from a betting point of view was Big Zeb. He finished his novice chase season by winning a Grade 1 and won an open Grade 1 on his first run the following season. Next time he fell when looking sure to win a Grade 2, then fell 4 out when going well in the Champion Chase. He then got within a head of the seemingly unbeatable Master Minded at the Punchestown Festival, (might have won had he not hit the last.) The following season he won 2 of his 3 races but never got into a jumping rhythm in the Tingle Creek and disappointed. He’d shown he had the speed to win a Champion – it was a case of whether his jumping would hold together on the day. In that context he was a big price at 10/1.

In summary, because jumping at such a strong gallop leaves so little margin for error, almost all the top 2m chasers are prone to at least the occasional race-losing mistake. Moscow Flyer unseated when odds-on and Well Chief fell when even money. The flip side is that horses that made similar race-losing mistakes in trials can be underestimated, as Big Zeb illustrated.

The reason upsets are so rare, (only 1 winner at bigger than 10/1 in the last 20 years,) is that one of the fast horses is almost bound to jump well enough to win. Equally, the difficulty of jumping at such speed, (ie the risk of one race-losing mistake), makes very short priced horses dangerous. They need to be exceptional jumpers to be backed at cramped odds.

One angle is to look at horses that previously showed top class form over 2m but have been running over further. Sizing Europe had won the previous season’s Arkle but connections tried to make him a Gold Cup horse in his 2nd season chasing. Back over 2m, on good ground, he won at a huge 10/1. As mentioned, Newmill had Grade 1 form in 2m hurdles. He’d only run once over fences in his winning season – over 2m4f. His ability to jump at speed was a bit of an unknown factor, but it was clear he had the speed.

Given it’s about jumping at speed, it’s no surprise that the previous season’s Arkle and Champion Chase are the best guides. 10 of the 13 winners this century had either run in the race the previous year or in the Arkle, (ignoring 2002 as that followed the abandoned Festival). They’d shown they could cope with the pace of the race, at the track, usually on the prevailing ground conditions.

Course form is valuable in any Festival race – if you’d backed blind every horse that had won at the previous year’s Festival over the last 5 years, you’d have made a profit of about 50pts from 97 bets – ie over 50% profit. That’s astonishing – you’d think they’d be over-bet.

Last season’s Festival form is probably more important in the Champion Chase than any other race over conventional obstacles – because the race is so specialist, (the more specialist it is, the more you’d expect form to be repeated.) 6 of the 10 winners I mentioned had won the Arkle or Champion Chase the previous season, 2 were 2nd and the other 2 tipped up when going well. In other words they’d demonstrated the pace for a Champion Chase, (if their jumping held up.) The other 3 winners had never run at the Festival before. Horses that have previously run in the Arkle or Champion Chase, and shown themselves not able to go the gallop, have little chance.

The problem this season is that it’s quite possible that none of the main protagonists from last season’s Arkle or Champion Chase will line up. Arkle winner Western Warhorse is injured and likely to miss the whole season. Runner-up Champagne Fever is being aimed at the Gold Cup. There was 4l back to Trifolium and Dodging Bullets and there must be doubts about either of them being quick enough. The 2014 Champion Chase was a really weak renewal and only Sire De Grugy is a realistic winner this time.

There are some pretty obvious unknowns. If Sprinter Sacre (5/2) returns anywhere near his best he wins. If he doesn’t line up Simonsig (14/1) might do, (depending on how he gets on over longer trips.) Like Sizing Europe and Newmill before him, it shouldn’t be assumed he no longer has the speed just because he’s been running over much further. Either of Nicky Henderson’s stars might simply outclass the opposition. If they don’t then Sire De Grugy (4/1) sets a solid standard, albeit not one that you couldn’t see a second season chaser improving past – but he’s also under an injury cloud.

Of the 2nd season chasers, Balder Succes (16/1) was rated 149 over hurdles at his peak, his best run probably when 3rd in the Kingwell. He looked good jumping at speed in Grade 1 novice events in the spring but was only a solid 5l 2nd to God’s Own (20/1) on his comeback in the Haldon off 162. God’s Own was running off 155 there but looks progressive. His hurdles form, rated 137 after 7 races over timber, and mainly running over intermediate trips without looking as if he needed a drop back to 2m, suggests he might lack the basic speed required. He’s also still a novice so has lots of Festival options.

Uxizandre (20/1) and Moscow Mannon (25/1) appear more likely to run in the Ryanair. Uxizandre looked an exposed 135 rated hurdler that wasn’t that quick. On the flip side the switch to forcing tactics, (which often work well in a Champion Chase,) and the application of cheekpieces have improved him hugely. He won the Shloer at the weekend, but did get first run on really poached, bad ground. I’m not sure he has the toe for a good ground Champion Chase. Moscow Mannon is harder to assess as he’s been a late developer – his hurdles mark of 137 might not reflect his ability.

Before the Shloer I backed Simply Ned (33/1) each-way. He was only a 130 rated hurdler and probably isn’t quick enough – but he might be similar to Finian’s Rainbow and Sire De Grugy, in that he was only really starting to see out the 2m trip last season. He showed lots of pace in the Grade 1 Maghull at Aintree when splitting Balder Succes and Trifolium, (who were much more experienced in graded races.)

He was a decent 1¾l 2nd to Uxizandre in the Shloer but ought to be much better on a sound surface. He already has form, (rated 161,) to have a chance of being placed in what may be another weak Champion Chase, (last season’s 3rd Module was raised from 157 to 163 in consequence.) As a 2nd season chaser he might improve a fair bit over the next 4 months as well.

The market is a right mess at the moment, and many ante-post punters will want to wait for more clues before having a bet. However, if you have a strong view on Sprinter Sacre, Sire De Grugy and Simonsig then you could look at backing one of them now, before the Tingle Creek when Sprinter Sacre returns. Equally, if you want to oppose those 3 and have found a long shot you fancy, now might be the perfect time for an each-way play – especially if you’re confident it’ll be aimed at the race – as a small, weak field on the day might give it a great chance of being placed.

What’s crucial is that you believe the horse you back is a 2 miler with the speed for the Champion Chase and is capable of, albeit is not certain, to jump well at that speed.

Jumps racing fan and lover of all things that lead to Cheltenham. Can usually be found in the National Spirit Bar at the Festival full of theories (before racing) and still celebrating whatever the outcome (after racing). Favourite horses: Istabraq, Moscow Flyer, Kauto Star, Denman, Relkeel, Master Minded, Limestone Lad, Big Buck's and Sprinter Sacre.

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