The Ryanair Chase has suffered as a recent edition to the Festival, and while many top-class chasers are best at intermediate trips, the cachet of both the Queen Mother Champion Chase and The Gold Cup means that trainers are loath to take what is deemed an easy option in the Ryanair, for all it holds Grade 1 status. If all the entries for this year’s contest turn up, it could be the race of the entire week, but the connections of big guns Don Cossack and Vautour have made it clear that the Gold Cup is the only race they have in mind, while Noel Meade would also like to reroute last year’s Gold Cup third and ante-post market leader Road To Riches to that contest. As a result, the Ryanair is both the weakest and arguably the most open of the Championship contests at this year’s Festival.
Cheltenham 2016 – Ryanair Chase Contenders
Vautour (Willie Mullins)
Robin Des Champs – Gazelle De Mai (Dom Pasquini)
Notes: Brilliant winner of the JLT a year ago, and clearly the biggest talent around in this division, but owner Rich Ricci has stated that he runs in either the Gold Cup or misses Cheltenham altogether. We must take Ricci at his word on this, for all Willie Mullins could conceivably have other ideas. Should he turn up, he will look something of a certainty, but we will treat him as a non-runner until that situation changes.
Don Cossack (Gordon Elliott)
Sholokhov – Depeche Toi (Konigsstuhl)
Notes: Arguably unlucky not to win this last year when getting a poor tactical ride, he would also be a leading contender on form, but he’s shading favouritism for the Gold Cup, and it would be a massive surprise if he didn’t take his chance there. Another to treat as an absentee until such times as he is declared.
Road To Riches (Noel Meade)
Gamut – Bellora (Over The River)
Notes: “Road To Riches is too slow for the Ryanair”, is a comment you’d expect to hear on a Cheltenham Preview event, but rather than coming from a panelist, this damning comment on his chances was uttered by none other than Noel Meade himself, and it’s no secret that the trainer would rather give his star another crack at the Gold Cup, in which he was a fine third last year. Unlike Don Cossack, however, the Ryanair appears to fit in with his owner’s thinking, and Meade may have to accept whatever decision Eddie and Michael O’Leary make on his participation. He certainly didn’t look slow when winning the Clonmel Oil Chase in November, and he was unsuited by the emphasis on stamina when second to Carlingford Lough in the Irish Gold Cup last month. He has plenty of form in the mud, but is a good mover who is equally at home on a sound surface, as he showed when winning last season’s Galway Plate. Leading contender if owner wins argument with trainer.
Al Ferof (Dan Skelton)
Dom Alco – Maralta (Altayan)
Notes: It’s now six years since he finished second to Cue Card in the Champion Bumper here, and it’s a testament to the pair of them that they arrive at the 2016 Festival with strong chances in two of the meeting’s marquee steeplechases. At the age of eleven, Al Ferof can be considered vulnerable to younger legs, but it is worth noting that hos win in the Peterborough Chase suggests he’s as good as ever, and he backed up that notion when a creditable third in the King George over a trip which stretches his stamina. He very much had the race run to suit at Huntingdon, of course, but the concern over him isn’t that his form doesn’t stack up, but rather than he’s proven best fresh/before the turn of the year in recent seasons, and he has patently run below his best on his last two visits to this fixture for Paul Nicholls (2012 Arkle and 2014 Ryanair). On that score, he’s been deliberately kept away from competitive action since the King George, and it would be a feather in the cap of Dan Skelton if he could improve on what his old boss has achieved with this fine, if ageing chaser.
Valseur Lido (Willie Mullins)
Anzillero – Libido Rock (Video Rock)
Notes: Another string to the Gigginstown bow, and one of no less than eleven left in the race by Willie Mullins at the latest forfeit stage, he appears to be his trainer’s most likely representative, despite also having a Gold Cup entry. An excellent second to Djakadam in the Grade 1 John Durkan at Punchestown, he was in the process of running at least to that level when unseating Ruby Walsh in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month. He looked sure to win at the time of his departure (although Carlingford Lough’s late flourish adds some uncertainty to that notion), and he again gave the impression with the way he travelled that he’ll still prove fully effective at shorter. He certainly would have beaten Road To Riches there, although he was seen to better effect than that rival given how the race unfolded. He arrives at the Festival having fallen or unseated on his last two starts, but the picture that paints of a clumsy horse, or one whose confidence may be lacking is potentially misleading, and he had no trouble with these fences when third to Vautour in last year’s JLT.
Smashing (Henry de Bromhead)
Smadoun – Faragreen (Green Tune)
Notes: Unbeaten on heavy ground this season, Smashing is becoming something of a quiet gamble in this contest, and he was certainly impressive when beating the classy Morning Assembly in Gowran’s Red Mills Chase (G2) last month. It’s worth remembering that the 7-y-o gelding was also fancied by many for last year’s Arkle, but he seemed to find the occasion all too much for him when trailing in behind Un de Sceaux. He’s clearly a better horse this time around, but he has shown his very best form in the mud and when dominating small fields. He’s very unlikely to get his own way in front here, with the likes of Village Vic also intent on making all. It may not be necessary for him to make all, but the question of his ability to deal with the big occasion remains unresolved, and those looking to back him should play close attention to his demeanour in the preliminaries.
Vibrato Valtat (Paul Nicholls)
Voix du Nord – La Tosca Valtat (Dom Alco)
Notes: Best effort this season when winning the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter over an extended 17 furlongs, and has struggled in graded races over shorter in his last three starts, for all he’s been close to form on ratings. Seems to lack the toe when running against the best two milers, and his trainer feels he’s been crying out for a return to this sort of trip. That may well be the case, but it should be remembered that he was tried at 2½m in the Manifesto Novices’ Chase at Aintree last spring, and while he ran to form, he didn’t seem to improve for the extra emphasis on stamina, and the bottom line is that he has a few pounds to find with the best of these if he’s going to gain a first Grade 1 win outside of novice company.
The sponsors have yet to get their hands on the prizemoney for this contest, with luminaries such as Don Cossack and First Lieutenant hitting the bar in recent years, but Michael O’Leary fields a very strong-looking team, headed by Road To Riches and VALSEUR LIDO, and given the latter would have gained the verdict over Noel Meade’s charge when the pair clashed at Leopardstown last month, he’s given the vote to make amends for that luckless defeat. The selection will be suited by a strong pace, and both Smashing and Village Vic should ensure there are no prisoners taken. It’s worth pointing out that the race will look very different if either Don Cossack or Vautour turn up, although that is rated unlikely by both sets of connections. Vroum Vroum Mag is another who should be considered if taking up her entry, but she appears set to run on Tuesday instead.
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