Champion Chase: what is the strongest trial?

Douvan and Ruby Walsh

Can anything beat Douvan in this year’s Champion Chase?

  PICTURE: Patrick McCann (racingpost.com/photos)  

WE WEIGH up the major trials for chasing’s greatest two-mile prize three weeks ahead of the big race.

Tingle Creek, Sandown
Average RPR of winner in last ten years: 172
Champion Chase winners from the race in last ten years: 5
2016-17 winner: Un De Sceaux

Unlike the Champion Hurdle, which funnels from several disparate directions into a showdown in March, the Champion Chase follows a more prescribed route, with the biggest deviations largely dictated by whether a horse is trained in Britain or Ireland.

The place where the two strands tangle beforehand, if they do at all, is the Tingle Creek at Sandown in early-December. Most recent Irish-trained winners of the Champion Chase run in the Tingle Creek at some point, but typically after they have won at Cheltenham. Only Big Zeb ran at Sandown first.

Five times the Champion Chase winner had run in the most recent Tingle Creek, four times doing the double. Again, Big Zeb was the exception.

Significance rating: 4.5 out of 5

Desert Orchid Chase, Kempton

Average RPR: 163
Champion Chase winners: 4
2016-17 winner: Special Tiara

The Desert Orchid has only been run ten times, but in four of its first nine renewals it contained the winner of the following March’s Queen Mother.

That bald fact does not tell the full story, however, which is a bit less flattering. The average field has been under six and the four subsequent Champion winners, who all did the double, returned 2-5, 4-11, 4-1 (Sire De Grugy’s price when 2-9 favourite Sprinter Sacre pulled up) and 8-11.

Further to four winners, the Desert Orchid has produced a further five placed runners in the same season’s Champion Chase, but none proved to be major players, the closest being Voy Por Ustedes when he was very much second-best to Master Minded in 2008.

Significance rating: 3.5/5

Sprinter Sacre - Kempton 27.12.13

Sprinter Sacre won the Desert Orchid on his way to last year’s Champion

  PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)  

Paddy Power Cashcard Chase, Leopardstown

Average RPR: 166
Champion Chase winners: 0
2016-17 winner: Douvan

The race known for most of its existence as the Dial-A-Bet Chase is probably Ireland’s premier two-mile chase away from Punchestown.

Curiously, it totally fails to overlap with the Champion Chase in recent years, despite the two Irish-trained Queen Mother winners of the last ten years, Big Zeb and Sizing Europe, having four wins in the race between them.

Nonetheless, in five of the last ten years the best Irish-trained finisher in the Champion Chase had run at Leopardstown over Christmas, so it remains a telling race for the strength of the Irish challenge.

Significance rating: 3/5

Clarence House Chase, Ascot
Average RPR: 173
Champion Chase winners: 5
2016-17 winner: Un De Sceaux

It may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that, in terms of both RPRs and producing the Queen Mother winner, the Clarence House actually edges the Tingle Creek.

This seems to have really taken hold in recent seasons, as in each of the last five years the Clarence House form has been represented by either the winner or runner-up in the Champion.

The reason for this probably has something to do with the Clarence House’s position between six and seven weeks before Cheltenham, the sweet spot for the modern trainer preparing a championship contender.

There is also something of a related contingency, as a horse ready for the Clarence House is one whose festival preparations can be presumed to be going smoothly. The latter is not an assumption so easily applied to the Tingle Creek.

The bad news is that this is hardly a ground-breaking discovery. The last Clarence House winner to go off bigger than 9-2 for the Champion Chase was Twist Magic six years ago.

Significance rating: 4.5/5

Wild card:

Arkle Challenge Trophy, Cheltenham
Average RPR: 166
Champion Chase winners: 4
2015-16 winner: Douvan

Less a wild card, more a piece of received wisdom to be inspected. Most are aware of the strength of the Arkle as a Champion Chase trial in a qualitative sense – held on Cheltenham’s Old course, it is the nearest thing to a Champion Chase that a novice can encounter.

But how does it fare in more quantitative terms? Douvan would be the fifth horse this century to do the double, and given there is a full year between races that is a strong indicator. To put it into context, there is only one Grade 1 with more than five back-to-back winners in the same time frame – the Long Walk Hurdle.

For further comparison, the novice equivalents of the other three championship races have managed three between them this century- and all have been in the RSA, which makes sense as novice chasers only have one way to go.

The Arkle also closely matches the Clarence House in terms of its representation. With the exception of 2013-14, which 2013 Arkle winner Simonsig missed through injury, each of the last six renewals has produced either the winner or second in the next year’s Queen Mother. With Douvan 1-3 at the time of writing, it’s likely that streak will be extended this year.

Significance rating: 5/5

 

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