The gauntlet that was left lying on the ground at Cheltenham is to be picked up at Aintree.
Probably wisely, Cue Card sidestepped a meeting with two-mile king Sprinter Sacre in the Queen Mother Champion Chase two weeks ago, instead winning the longer Ryanair Chase the following afternoon. But yesterday Cue Card’s trainer, Colin Tizzard, committed his stable star to the John Smith’s Melling Chase on Friday week, setting up an intriguing encounter between two Festival champions.
Sprinter Sacre is unbeaten in eight starts over fences and the highest-rated jumper in training. On the two occasions he and Cue Card have met – most recently as novice chasers in last year’s Arkle Trophy – he was the master. But next week he will step beyond his proven distance for the first time and into his rival’s comfort zone.
It is a move that has been successful in the past; the double was completed by his own Nicky Henderson stablemate Finian’s Rainbow 12 months ago and by another exceptional two-miler, Moscow Flyer, in 2005. But five years ago Master Minded, as impressive as Sprinter Sacre at Cheltenham, found the two and a half miles of the Aintree Grade One contest beyond him.
Tizzard is under no illusions about the task facing Cue Card, who romped home by seven in the Ryanair, but relishes the chance for revenge. “We are entitled to think we have the best two-and-a-half-miler after his last two performances,” the trainer said, “but I have no reason to doubt that Sprinter Sacre will get the trip. We got within seven lengths of him in the Arkle, but I feel we have a much better horse this year. Sprinter Sacre hasn’t had a hard race since then and we don’t know if he is better because he hasn’t been fully tested.”
Cue Card’s place in the Melling Chase field was decided after a sparkling display on Tizzard’s gallops yesterday. “He did some fast work and he couldn’t be in better form,” the trainer said. “I’d say Cheltenham was one of his best performances. He had that one blip in the King George, but I don’t think he was quite on song that day.”
One of Ireland’s best, Flemenstar, is also likely to be in the mix next week. “It’s shaping to be a very, very good race if all three turn up,” added Tizzard. “We’ve avoided Sprinter Sacre once this year, but this is our trip.”
One who will not be at Aintree is Beshabar, who had been a lively 25-1 shot for the Grand National. The Tim Vaughan-trained gelding, winner of the Scottish National two years ago, has sustained a minor foreleg injury.
Sir Peter O’Sullevan is undergoing tests in a London hospital after suffering a mild stroke. The former BBC commentator turned 95 this month.
Chris McGrath’s Nap
Catflap (3.00 Lingfield) Yet to win but still not fully exposed and there was encouragement from her latest effort, when she came home with purpose from off the pace over too sharp a five furlongs.
Upswing (3.55 Wetherby) Though his handicap debut resulted in only a narrow victory, it was an easy one and he should have even more to offer over today’s longer trip.
One To Watch
Yul Finegold (George Baker) made an encouraging seasonal debut on bad ground at Doncaster last Friday and a profitable handicap career looks likely in the hands of his capable trainer.
Where The Money’s Going
Bennys Mist, an easy winner at Newbury five days ago and due to have his first test over Aintree’s unique fences in next week’s Topham Chase, was cut to 16-1 from 20s by Paddy Power after a lumpy bet yesterday morning.