Un De Sceaux can show rivals the way home
A year after confirming his precocious brilliance in the Arkle Trophy, Un De Sceaux will have to conquer three champions to be crowned king of the two-mile chasing ranks.
Willie Mullins's relentless force of nature has long been odds-on for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase. He takes no prisoners under Ruby Walsh, and the way that he hurls himself at the job - and the odd fence - makes for a gripping spectacle.
Thus far, nothing has been able to live with him when he has stayed on his feet. This, though, will be a little different to anything that he has imposed his wrecking-ball will on before.
It is one thing seeing off Sire De Grugy on soft ground at Ascot in January, quite another to dismiss a field of such depth on a drying Cotswold sod in March. He will be a worthy champion if he grinds this lot into submission.
Nicky Henderson has somehow managed to rekindle the fire in Sprinter Sacre's belly, and it is the once-formidable 2014 title-holder that might pose the most potent threat to Un De Sceaux's coronation.
However, there are also redoubtable regulars such as Dodging Bullets, Somersby and Special Tiara. Last year's one-two-three might be up against it, but they will all relish the conditions.
In the opening Grade One, Yorkhill and Yanworth do battle, and then No More Heroes and More Of That cross swords in the RSA. Effectively reducing any of these races to matches is ill-advised, but they do promise to be two absolutely intriguing duels.
1.30 Grade One Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle 2m 5f
Yanworth blew away a decent field here in January. He thrashed Shantou Village and Champers On Ice, and the fourth and sixth home have since come out and won at a lower level.
He was a decent bumper horse but he has developed into a serious prospect at this job, as has Yorkhill. Unbeaten in four track starts, he showed quality and character when dropping back in trip to land the Tolworth at Sandown.
The re-opposing second, O O Seven, has won since, while the third, Agrapart, plundered the Betfair Hurdle, which is tip-top form. As a son of Presenting, Yorkhill should enjoy this better ground.
A Toi Phil, Bello Conti and Thomas Hobson are all smart operators, but it would be a surprise if they didn't finish behind their classy stablemate.
Its' afreebie has won three times on soft ground, while Vigil is another that might prefer more cut. Fifth in the 2014 Champion Bumper, he has a touch of quality.
Verdict: Yorkhill is napped to thwart Yanworth.
2.10 Grade One RSA Chase 3m 1f
No More Heroes has progressed into a smashing young chaser. He was shy of the best over hurdles and was arguably unlucky not to win the three-mile novice here last year, but he has really impressed over fences.
From a visual perspective, you couldn't fault him, and the one caveat would be that his form on paper is solid rather than spectacular. His best form is on slower ground but he has the scope to keep progressing.
More Of That can also still improve. He has run just twice this term and not since December, though he has filled the eye here on both of those outings.
His 13-length December defeat of last weekend's big-race winner Sametegal, when conceding weight, is a blue-chip recommendation. Likewise, his 2014 World Hurdle victory over Annie Power is something that none of these can match over flights. More Of That clearly had its problems last season, but he has looked his old self this term and has only run eight times in his life.
Roi Des Francs is capable of out-running decent odds. He is a fine staying chasing prospect, but, on the balance of form, he has something to find, especially on the drying ground.
Conditions may suit Shaneshill better. He had the quality to be second to Douvan in last year's Supreme, but fluffed his lines last time.
He has never run over the trip, so that is a big unknown.
Blacklion is a likeable sort, but whether he has the class to cause an upset on the prevailing going is another matter. Vyta De Roc beat Minella Rocco at Ascot and stays really well.
Verdict: Course specialist More Of That (nb) can cap his resurgence.
2.50 Grade Three Coral Cup (Handicap Hurdle) 2m 5f
Diamond King has progressed well since joining Gordon Elliott. Second to Blue Hell at Fairyhouse off 132, he was conceding weight to Jennies Jewel when he won a Punchestown conditions race last time. The handicapper has taken no chances off 149.
Arbre De Vie, fourth in the 2015 Albert Bartlett, was then second to the County Hurdle runner-up Sort It Out at Punchestown in the spring.
Having nearly come down on the flat before turning in, that was a fine turn off 144, and a mark of 150 might not stop him. A recent run over fences, when second at Thurles, should have left him spot on.
Blazer is possibly the most interesting of the other Mullins runners, with this step up in trip likely to suit. Waxies Dargle finished ahead of Blazer when fifth in the Betfair Hurdle. He is 10lbs higher than when third in last year's County.
Politologue catches the eye. He was second to Barters Hill in the Grade One Challow Hurdle and then dropped back to two miles to skate up at Exeter.
Off 142 for 10st 10lb, he could be well treated under Sam Twiston-Davies. Stablemate Baoulet Delaroque has won three on the spin. Nine pounds higher than when beating a fair yardstick in Value At Risk at Huntingdon, he still has little weight to carry in this.
Verdict: Paul Nicholls' Politologue has the cut of a horse that is thrown in.
3.30 Grade One Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase 2m
Un De Sceaux has run 16 times over four years and never been bettered by another horse. He is the highest rated on duty, two pounds clear of Sprinter Sacre, and it is hard to argue with that. Since arriving from France, he has only twice raced when the word good was in the going description, winning here and at Punchestown last spring.
On both occasions, he wasn't able to dominate the field the way that he can on deep ground, but he was still far too good for the opposition.
While this is the best race that he has run in, his convincing defeat of Sire De Grugy at Ascot is a fair recommendation. Given his blitzkrieg style of running, he will always live on the edge a little, but his fencing is generally top-class.
At Ascot, Un De Sceaux readily saw off Sire De Grugy by five lengths. Sprinter Sacre had to work hard to shake off the same horse in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas.
Nonetheless, it would be unwise to discount Sprinter Sacre on that basis.
His Lazarus-like rejuvenation this season has been spectacular, going from exploiting favourable conditions in majestic fashion here in November to knuckling down gamely at Kempton.
At his peak, Sprinter Sacre was as good a two-mile chaser as we have seen. He might be shy of that level now, but he has got his groove back, and he still has it within his range to get Un De Sceaux at it. Sire De Grugy had previously denied Special Tiara in controversial style in the Tingle Creek. A tenacious warrior, he has also enjoyed a return to form, but, on good ground here, he might lack the sheer quality of Un De Sceaux and Sprinter Sacre.
Last year's victor Dodging Bullets looked a below-par winner and didn't set the world alight on his Newbury return, though he will strip fitter now.
While the 2015 third Special Tiara can be trusted to run its race again back on decent ground, he would need to improve considerably to win, and, at nine years of age, that is not easy to envisage.
Sizing Granite is the dark horse based on last year's form, but, again, it requires a leap of faith to picture him winning. Felix Yonger has blossomed late in his career but has failed to win here in three previous visits.
Verdict: Sprinter Sacre is a real threat but Un De Sceaux gets the nod.
4.10 Glenfarclas Cross-country Handicap Chase 3m 7f
Josies Orders has won its three completed races at this novelty discipline, including twice here before the turn of the year. This will be tougher off level weights, but he represents Enda Bolger and Nina Carberry, which is crucial.
Dual winner Balthazar King returns after suffering a nasty injury in last year's Grand National. He has a good record fresh so he cannot be discounted.
Last year's winner Rivage D'Or has struggled since, while the likes of Uncle Junior and Sire Collonges have run well here before. Sire Collonges was second to Josies Orders in December and is well capable of having a big say again.
Ballyboker Bridge was third that day and then won at Punchestown. His stable won this three years ago, so he warrants respect under another former winner, Andrew Lynch.
Verdict: Safest to stick with the experts at this job, so Josies Orders it is.
4.50 Grade Three Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle 2m 1f
An annual contender for the most loathed race at the Festival, so give it a wide berth. Campeador is unexposed, and his Grade One fourth at Leopardstown was a decent effort.
His Gordon Elliott-trained stablemate Missy Tata is another to consider off a low weight, with excellent claimer Jack Kennedy up top.
Second in a Fairyhouse Grade Three, she could have more to give. Diego Du Charmil makes its debut for Paul Nicholls after three placed efforts in France, while Voix Du Reve was beaten when odds-on on its debut for Mullins.
He could leave that behind him yet.
Verdict: Campeador - if you must.
5.30 Grade One Weatherbys Champion Bumper 2m 1f
Augusta Kate is being pitched into open company at the highest level. She is clearly a very good horse, but has only ever beaten mares and this is a huge step up.
New To This Town is also unbeaten in two. He ground down Avenir D'Une Vie in deep ground at Gowran Park and it would be dangerous to underestimate him, even if there is some concern about this quicker surface.
Avenir D'Une Vie has since got back to winning ways at Naas and must also be a leading player. Bacardys looked tough when winning on soft ground on his debut, likewise Battleford, though Very Much So, Turcagua and Castello Sforza have absences to overcome. Ballyandy may be the pick of the locals. He surged home at Newbury to win for a third time in four starts and chances are that he will be staying on at the death.
Verdict: Avenir D'Une Vie might improve the most for this drier ground.