Gordon Elliott’s shadow has crept up on Willie Mullins’s domestic champion trainer hopes this season, but few would have predicted the contrast in fortunes between the two at this year’s Cheltenham Festival – a meeting Mullins has farmed in recent years – with Elliott running away with the race to be top trainer and Mullins unbelievably without a winner.
It’s unbelievable because even 2/9 shot and ‘sure thing’ Douvan got beat, but Elliott beating his short-priced favourites in the Grade-1 Supreme Novices’, Mares’ Hurdle and Champion Bumper must have been tough to take.
Such is Elliott’s flying form that Un De Sceaux, long-time ante-post favourite for the Ryanair Chase won last year by the late and great Vautour, has been overtaken in the market by his Irish Gold Cup second Empire Of Dirt.
I’m sure Un De Sceaux’s owners will be wondering what could have been if they’d locked horns with the disappointing Douvan in the Champion Chase, as he’s in the form of his life having won two Grade 1s over two miles this season, and would surely have gone very close.
They made the decision to up him in trip by five furlongs instead and, whilst he has won over the trip over in France, there are certainly stamina doubts ahead of his Ryanair assignment.
Genuine good ground is also a concern as the only two defeats on his career – discounting the times he’s fallen on his arse – have been on such going, albeit both to the all-time great Sprinter Sacre.
The Mullins stable’s form is another niggling concern but it’d be daft to underestimate his trainer or jockey, given their peerless recent record not just at Cheltenham but everywhere they run.
On balance, the 11/4 Un De Sceaux has drifted to is perfectly fair – it’s certainly got more juice in it than the now co-favourite Empire Of Dirt’s.
One is a stayer and one all speed, so it’s an intriguing match up that’ll be decided by who has the best of both worlds.
Uxizandre is such a horse and thoroughly saw the trip out when winning this on near-identical ground in a brilliant front-running performance two years back.
But that’s a long time in horse racing and, despite a very encouraging return from injury behind Un De Sceaux on Trials Day earlier this year, has everything to prove here.
Brilliant horse, but 4/1 is an awful price and of zero interest.
I’m cold on the chances of the two Henderson runners despite the yard’s fine form, as both Vaniteux and Josses Hill is thoroughly exposed as a little shy of top class.
Empire Of Dirt’s Gigginstown teammate Sub Lieutenant has been fancied by many for this race with some solid form in Irish Grade 1s, but he never really threatened to win any of them and I can’t see why he’d suddenly find the necessary improvement to win his toughest assignment yet.
With the two favourites much of a muchness and bottom-of-the-betting Aso exposed to the point that winning is implausible, we’re left with Colin Tizzard’s expensive French import ALARY to ruffle the favourites’ feathers.
A top-class staying chaser in France, he was bought to be a Gold Cup horse originally but flopped badly on his first British start and fell in the next.
I actually thought the second run was full of promise as he travelled really nicely for a long way before unexpectedly finding himself alone up front when another fell, then appearing to get in a bit of a muddle and somersaulting through the next fence.
Tizzard is as convinced he’s top-class as he is he got a winter bug when first moved over the channel, so we’ve something to cling to if the form book says otherwise.
Perhaps the drop in trip is just the ticket as staying chases are run at far slower paces in France, and are therefore less testing, while Tizzard claims he’s ‘as fast as anything’ on his gallops.
He’s got some excellent yardsticks with Champion Chase second Fox Norton and Gold Cup hopefuls Cue Card and Native River, so perhaps we should sit up and listen.
33/1 about a horse who’s held in such esteem by a trainer not known for getting carried away seems well worth a poke in a competitive, yet open, renewal of this race.
With eight runners the each-way terms are perfect, and that looks the value play.
0.5pt each-way Alary @33/1, 14:50 Cheltenham, Thursday
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