Oddschecker / Thursday 4th February 2016 / 10:01
While the winter talk has largely focused on the potential for a vintage Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Queen Mother Champion Chase is also now hurtling towards being a crackerjack contest.
Last year's Arkle winner, Un De Sceaux, will meet two former winners in Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy with a strong supporting cast in tow.
The Willie Mullins-trained Un De Sceaux is the 'new kid on the block'. Despite having won the Arkle imperiously last March, some doubts still linger over his ability to keep it all together among elite Grade One two-mile chasers.
Some of that doubt will have been erased with his stylish win in Ascot's Clarence House Chase – where he easily took the scalp of Sire De Grugy. His form figures in seven runs over fences comprise of two Fs and a strings of 1s. A year ago he may have been regarded as too big, bold and daring in his racing style for the white heat of the Champion Chase but there were clear signs of maturity in his final prep race at Ascot.
There is no doubt about his ability, but Un De Sceaux must prove it on the grandest stage and, should he do so, give his record-breaking trainer a first Cheltenham Championship race win outside of the Champion Hurdle. Given that he is a short price, there will be plenty opposition.
Should Nicky Henderson's Sprinter Sacre come up the Cheltenham hill for a second Queen Mother success on March 16th, it is likely to provoke floods of emotion not spotted for many years in the Cotswolds. When he imperiously grabbed this crown in 2013, Sprinter Sacre was set to become jumps racing's shining beacon. Unbeaten, 'The Black Aeroplane' possessed an almost Frankel-esque aura at that time.
His much publicised heart issues seemed to have set him spiralling irreversibly, but this winter the old spark has returned. His Cheltenham success in November harked back to the best days, serving his rivals an ultimatum mid-race to which they had no answer. It is hard to imagine that Sprinter Sacre can fly to the heights of 2013 once more, but, equally, it would be churlish to think Un De Sceaux is predestined to get there.
Their meeting promises so much, it is easy to forget there will be much more to this race. Sire De Grugy's Ascot run seems to suggest this will be beyond him, but the Tingle Creek winner has been written off prematurely before.
Last year's winner, Dodging Bullets, must prove his fitness but champion trainer Paul Nicholls is adamant he will be ready in time. Third in the Queen Mother last year and an unlucky loser in the Tingle Creek, Special Tiara's fondness for front running could lay a spanner in the works for Un De Sceaux. Lurking with the potential for improvement are perceived second strings belonging to trainers Gary Moore and Henry de Bromhead in Traffic Fluide and Sizing Granite.
Un De Sceaux has undeniably strong claims that he will graduate from novice to Champion Chaser but, waiting in the wings, hoping to pounce mid race and bring Ruby Walsh's mount to a place he has never been before is former champ Sprinter Sacre.
It is a mouth-watering prospect and with two miles at breakneck speed around Cheltenham to contemplate, a whole host of permutations are bubbling under the surface for this year's Queen Mother.