2020 Cheltenham Festival Preview: Wednesday, Ladies Day
By Alastair Akers
Wednesday’s Queen Mother Champion Chase was billed to be the best race of the Festival, and possibly the best race of the entire year, in the run-up to this week. However, the late withdrawal of defending two-time winner Altior is a huge blow to the race.
The reigning champion appeared back to somewhere approaching his best after his Newbury win last time out, and it would have been a fascinating battle against two younger horses who are equally exciting, but very different in terms of profile and running style.
Defi Du Seuil already has two Cheltenham Festival victories to his name, and if that record isn’t appealing enough, he’s also unbeaten in his three runs this season. Jockey Barry Geraghty has well and truly figured out his mount; he uses the seven-year-old’s smooth cruising speed to settle off the front-runners, and then accelerates with a decisive burst of speed after the final fence.
Chacun Pour Soi, meanwhile, has an alternative – but equally impressive – way of doing things. Willie Mullins’ eight-year-old tends to take up a more prominent position, and then kicks for home on the final bend in an effort to use his stamina and outstanding jumping to his advantage. This brought him an excellent win in the Dublin Chase, when he comfortably saw off the best Irish opposition, and more notably the scalp of Defi Du Seuil at Punchestown last May. This year’s Champion Chase will settle the score: was Defi Du Seuil over the hill after a long and arduous season, is Chacun Pour Soi a flat track bully (having never raced at undulating Cheltenham), or is Chacun Pour Soi simply a better horse when tuned up?
Altior's absence could play into the hands of Defi Du Seuil, who will now potentially not have to out-sprint the ultimate National Hunt sprinter on his home turf. The famous hill accentuates Altior’s closing speed, and it would have been hard to see Defi De Seuil going past him in front of the grandstand under those circumstances.
Even without Altior, the rematch between Defi and Chacun is one to savour and it might still be the race of the day.
Wednesday isn’t all about the Champion Chase, though. Before those equine gladiators do battle, the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle will tell us whether the most-hyped horse in training is the real deal. Based on his career so far, Envoi Allen could be a wonder-horse: he has won seven out of seven, including a stunning Cheltenham Bumper triumph last year and two Grade 1 novice hurdles in Ireland this season. Indeed, as trainer Gordon Elliott commented on his most recent stable tour, calling Envoi Allen ‘hyped’ is harsh, because “people tend to talk about you when you’ve won all your races in the style he has”.
The problem, as any seasoned Cheltenham punter knows, is that we have been here many times before, and about half the short-priced novice hurdlers get beaten on the day, however talented they seem. That’s usually because there’s an unexposed future great somewhere else in the field, and there are indeed some good-looking rivals lurking in the entries, notably whichever of the JP McManus-owned pair Sporting John and Chantry House run here, and the confusingly similarly-named The Big Getaway and The Big Breakaway. All four look to have the right mix of speed and stamina to excel, and have been visually taking despite their relative lack of experience and achievement so far.
That high-class unexposed opposition means that while Envoi Allen is by far the likeliest winner, especially if previously vanquished Abacadabras has excelled in Tuesday’s Supreme Novices' Hurdle, he isn’t entitled to be quite so short in the market.
Last, but definitely not least, there is the small matter of Tiger Roll seeking his third consecutive Cross Country victory, a feat going under the radar as Elliott’s hugely popular chaser prepares for his attempt at a truly historic Grand National treble in April. His owners made a fuss about his handicap mark for Aintree, but the Tiger will have no such worries at Cheltenham, running off level weights with his rivals. That makes him banker material, especially given how easily he has won this race in the past two years and his outstanding overall Festival record of three wins from four. It would be an extremely brave, and perhaps foolish, act to lay the great Tiger Roll at Cheltenham.
With justifiably short-priced horses in all of the big races, it’s certainly not a day for sitting on the fence.