Cheltenham Festival 2014: Ageing Europe can regain crown in Queen Mother Champion Chase

 

Cheltenham

The test presented by the Queen Mother Champion Chase, a lightning-fast two-mile, one-lap blitz over fences, is arguably the most specialist of the week and, as such, tends to produce serial success more than any other contest. If the reigning champion does not win, then the up-and-comer who took the previous year's novice equivalent, the Arkle Trophy, often does. But Wednesday's edition is an exception; neither Sprinter Sacre, not quite himself after a heart problem, is here to defend his title nor his brilliant young stable-mate Simonsig, sidelined by injury, to test his own progression. Hamlet without either the prince or Horatio.

So where to look among the remaining cast in a contest that is competitive but lacks a performer to make you catch your breath? The favourite is Sire De Grugy, who was seen to have taken his first Grade One prize, the Tingle Creek Chase, only by default after Sprinter Sacre was pulled up, but who has since not only remained unbeaten but done so with increasing verve and confidence. The eight-year-old has yet to win at Cheltenham – his best performances have come at tracks with a flatter profile – but his eminently capable trainer Gary Moore avers that, this season, he has matured into an athlete capable of coping with the track's demands on strength and balance.

In the absence of his headline acts, Nicky Henderson has pulled a couple of understudies from the wings in Captain Conan and Kid Cassidy; the former, a well-placed triple top-level winner as a novice, deserves due respect and is sure to strip fitter after defeat by Sire De Grugy on his seasonal debut. The Irish challenge is headed by Arvika Ligeonniere, who has mopped up often uncompetitive Grade Ones back home, but is another who may have a track bias; he does seem to operate better going right-handed, particularly on heavy ground at Punchestown, where he has won five times.

Perhaps, though, there is cause to look to the old king. Sizing Europe (3.20), trained in Co Waterford by Henry de Bromhead, took the prize three years ago; in 2012, he was an arguably unlucky loser in a bumping, controversial finish and last year, although he was thoroughly put in his place by Sprinter Sacre, at least he gave him a race until the cause was hopeless, and came in clear of the rest. Statistics do not favour him; only one of his age, 12, has taken the crown (Skymas 37 years ago) and only one, the exceptional Moscow Flyer in 2005, has regained it. He will have the faster ground on which he thrives and at 14-1 looks value for at least a place on his sixth and farewell performance on his favourite stage.

The race that is designed to produce Gold Cup winners of the future – and indeed has done so twice in recent years, through Denman and Bobs Worth – can go to Many Clouds (2.05), who was mugged in the home straight last time after getting into a duel up front but who had previously looked a progressive young stayer. The opening Neptune Novices' Hurdle has an equally good record in unearthing future talent and Red Sherlock (1.30) may unlock this year's mystery.

The Irish make a habit of taking the bumper prize home and Shaneshill (5.15) can give Willie Mullins three in a row. Suggestions for the handicaps are Calculated Risk (2.40), Balthazar King (4.00) and Goodwood Mirage (4.40).

What's in a name?

Faugheen (1.30 Wednesday)

Small village near the border of County Tipperary and County Kilkenny, north of Carrick-on-Suir.

Carlingford Lough (2.05)

Glacial inlet between County Down in Northern Ireland and County Louth in the Republic, with Warrenpoint at its head on the northern shore.

Meister Eckhart (2.40)

A 14th century German theologian, philosopher and mystic, born near Gotha in the then Holy Roman Empire.

Dell'Arca (2.40)

A 15th century Italian sculptor, best known for work in the Basilica of San Domenico in Bologna.

Captain Conan (3.20)

A fictional French infantry officer, eponymous dashing hero of the Roger Vercel novel set on the Macedonian front during World War One.

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