Matt Tombs / Thursday 11th December 2014 / 14:38
All the top 2m chases are about jumping at speed, but when novices go a breakneck gallop, (some of them for the first time over fences,) there’s clearly a comparatively high risk of jumping errors. At the Arkle gallop, one real mistake can often cost the horse any chance – in recent years favourites Tatenen and Thisthatandtother have both been on the deck early on.
However, if their jumping holds up, horses that’d shown high-class form over hurdles the previous season, (RPR in excess of 160,) have a great record. Since 2002, eight renewals have featured at least one such horse and they’ve won five, (Moscow Flyer, Azertyuiop, My Way De Solzen, Sizing Europe & Simonsig.) In 2 of the other 3 renewals, Accordion Etoile fell when going well and Champagne Fever was chinned last year. (The other renewal featured Menorah who had well documented jumping problems and was thrashed by Sprinter Sacre.) Speed is crucial – the winners might stay further, but stayers almost never win, as one of the fast horses is almost bound to jump well enough.
With there now being 4 level weights novice chases at the Festival rather than 2, the races are less competitive. When combined with the fact that so many of the top horses are in so few hands, there’s an ever increasing likelihood that the best horses won’t take each other on. That’s exactly what’s likely to happen in the Arkle, with the two favourites – Vautour and Un De Sceaux, being trained by Willie Mullins, who likes to keep his ‘A-team’ apart.
Looking for opposition to the Mullins pair, it’s really thin on the ground. Last weekend saw what in theory ought to be the main British trial – the only 2m Grade 1 novice chase in Britain before the Festival. The quirky Vibrato Valtat (20/1) beat Dunraven Storm (33/1) by 2l. The winner was fairly exposed after ten runs over hurdles, (highest RPR 144) and I’d be very surprised if he won the Arkle, (although less so than if 10 year old Dunraven Storm did.)
Of the other British contenders that have run, God's Own (16/1) has obviously shown a high level of form. He’s a second season novice who won the Grade 1 at Punchestown just after the end of last season and won the Haldon off 155. He struggled in the Tingle Creek on Saturday and apparently reverts to novice company for the rest of the season. I suspect God's Own wants further and he seems more at home on a right handed track, so is opposable.
It’s dangerous to label a horse a bad jumper too early in their fencing careers. Some are just slow learners and, according to Paul Nicholls, Ptit Zig (20/1) fits that category. He’s had a couple of schools round so far at 2/9 and 2/11. He recorded a hurdles RPR of 160 in last season’s Champion Hurdle so has plenty of speed. If he were to pass the test of jumping at speed then he’d be the most likely winner of the British contenders – that’s a big if though.
Sgt Reckless (25/1) came from the clouds to be 7½l 4th to Vautour in the Supreme, before showing similar form when placed in the equivalent races at Aintree and Punchestown. He jumped well on debut when winning by 3½l at Uttoxeter but that looked a weak race, (the 5 who’ve followed him home have all been beaten since.) My gut feel is that he’s opposable, (I’m not sure he’s straightforward,) but I’m keeping an open mind until I see him in a good race.
Josses Hill hasn’t run this season but Nicky Henderson has a good record with such horses. Simonsig and Tiutchev both won the Arkle after 2 runs and Sprinter Sacre after 3 – none of them made their fencing debut before December. He was well beaten by Vautour in the Supreme, had a minor setback in the autumn and we’ve not seen him jump a fence yet. He’s one to consider closer to the time rather than now at only 10/1.
The most obvious Irish contender not trained by Willie Mullins is Gilgamboa (20/1). He ran well in the Supreme until blundering 2 out and always looked likely to make a better chaser. He won a hot looking beginners chase at Navan, jumping well, but I wasn’t in love with his finishing effort. It was only the 6th start of his life and he deserves the benefit of the doubt at this stage. The placed horses haven’t done anything for the form since and I’m open-minded about his chances.
Willie Mullins also trains Valseur Lido (25/1) who’s very likely to run over further and Punchestown juvenile Grade 1 winner Abbyssial (25/1) who hasn’t run over fences yet. 5 year olds don’t get a weight allowance in the Arkle any more and you couldn’t back Abbyssial at this stage. Clarcam (25/1) was thrashed by Vautour at Navan despite getting 12lb weight-for-age. He was a good winner at the same track recently but is hard to fancy.
At this embryonic stage the staying novice chase division looks strong, especially in Ireland. However, the more specialist 2m division looks to lack depth. On ability Vautour (7/2) and Un De Sceaux (6/1) stand out a mile.
Looking at how Mullins might shuffle his pack - he’s leaning towards running Valseur Lido in the RSA and Don Poli in the 4 miler. Of his others to have run, Un Atout blundered away his chances on his chasing debut and we don’t know how much of his ability he retains – he could still be one for the staying novice races. Adriana Des Mottes beat Rule The World when getting 20lb at Fairyhouse, but also looks to need further than 2m.
Mullins has some potential Grade 1 novices still to bring out – Pont Alexandre, Abbyssial, Tennis Cap and Inish Island, plus Clondaw Court might switch to fences if remaining sound. Of those, only Tennis Cap looks an obvious 2 miler – the impact of the others might be to change the composition of the Mullins A team. For example, if Pont Alexandre looks a star and heads for the RSA, that might push Valseur Lido into the JLT – with a knock on effect for Vautour and Un De Sceaux.
At this stage there’s obviously an element of guesswork – and I got it wrong last season with Felix Yonger and Champagne Fever. However, this season I think the debate is around which race Vautour runs in. Mullins and Ruby Walsh have been at pains to say he could go over any trip. By contrast, they’ve been equally clear they see Un De Sceaux as a pure 2 miler, (he’s not even quoted for the JLT,) and its not hard to see why.
Its not Mullins style to run novices in championship events so I’d be surprised if either ended up in the Champion Chase. (If one does then its much more likely to be Vautour, as Un De Sceaux has been on the floor already.)
The crucial point is that there really is nowhere else for Un De Sceaux to go – he’ll surely run in the Arkle if he gets his chasing career back on track after that Thurles spill. Whether Vautour takes him on depends on how the rest of the Mullins novices shape up, but at the moment I’d expect him to run in the JLT if Un De Sceaux and Vautour both get to Cheltenham. If my theory about Paddy Power having an inside track into the yard’s running plans is right, it’s notable that they are top price Vautour now for the Arkle (7/2) having been ducking him previously, but bottom price (9/4) for the JLT.
The risk about Un De Sceaux is that his jumping falls apart and he doesn’t make the Festival, or he ends up on the deck on the day. He’d jumped really well until his novicey fall at Thurles and I’d expect him to prove himself in Ireland over the winter. He might be like Moscow Flyer in that he’s generally a fast jumper, but prone to the odd mistake that puts him on the floor.
If I’m right and Vautour goes for the JLT, I think it’s almost a case of Un De Sceaux just having to jump round to win – I genuinely think he’s that much quicker than the others, (achieved an RPR of 164 over hurdles on the bridle last season). Even if I’m wrong and they both line up in the Arkle, I think Un De Sceaux is the more likely winner. Ladbrokes go a stand out 6/1 and I think he could be around an even money shot on the day, so 6/1 is a price I want to take.
1pt Un De Sceaux to win the Arkle @ 6/1