The 2020 Champion Chase is run over about twenty yards shy of two miles, at Cheltenham on Wednesday, March the 11th. Altior is bidding to win the race for the third time in a row, but he faces stiff opposition in the form of Chacun Pour Soi and Defi Du Seuil.
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The obvious place to start is the winner for the past two years, Altior. Indeed he has won at the last four festivals, as he won the 2016 Supreme over hurdles, and the 2017 Arkle while a novice over fences. Altior won the 2018 Champion by seven lengths from Min, but he looked in trouble before the home bend and was matched at 7/1 in running, but as he often did before over both hurdles and fences, he finished very strongly to win going right away. Last year he again looked in big trouble when Sceau Royal came there travelling much better, and jumped past him at the last, but he again rallied to win by almost two lengths from Politologue. He looked near his limit though, and the pace was sound, so it was undeniably a below par performance, as it looked a weak Champion Chase field.
Since then he won at Sandown at the end of last season, before coming second in what was effectively a match race at Ascot when stepped up in trip on his reappearence. He had long shaped like the step up to two miles and five would suit, and it certainly wasn’t the trip that beat him on the day, as he was being niggled from 4 out, looked beaten before the home bend, but ran on well to the line, and would have got closer if given a harder ride after the last. He didn’t shape like the run was needed either, and in truth just didn’t look good enough on the day. It’s hard to know what the form is worth, as although Cyrname has put up some big performances on the clock at Ascot, time figures over jumps have a bigger margin for error, and it would be wise to have a decent range of possible ratings for how good he is. Given the only other runner in that race was allowed jump around in his own time, it’s not the most solid piece of form, and on balance you would have to be disappointed in Altior.
From both before and after that Ascot run Altior’s trainer made plenty of contradictory statements about his welfare, and he missed a couple of potential engagements after that, so it was encouraging to see him win at Newbury last week. The pace was on the steady side and he was a little free early. A slightly big jump at the third last just when they were quickening meant he came off the bridle soon after, but he never really looked in that much trouble, and when his jockey went for the stick after the last he picked up and went away for a three and a quarter length win, but left the impression he would have beaten Sceau Royal by much further off a faster gallop and more competition. He looked much more like the Altior of old at Newbury, than in his three previous starts.
I still don’t think I’ve totally figured Altior out. In almost every run over two miles he’s been strongest at the finish suggesting further will suit better, but there is a possibility that he is just lazy, and takes longer, and needs more rousting, to hit top gear than most other horses, hence his perceived flat spot in his races. Talking of flat spots I think the term is misused, as in general people seem to be suggesting the horse slows down before picking up again, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a horse do that, and mostly it’s when a horse gets outpaced when they quicken, but is a strong stayer so keeps going better than the others, or a horse that takes longer to hit their top speed. In both cases they are still increasing their speed in the period people are calling their flat spot, so as a term I don’t think it adequately describes what is really happening.
Before Newbury I would have been very concerned that Altior just isn’t as good as he was. I thought he did all a top form Altior would have done that day, so the signs are more positive, but he could be up against two better horses in this than anything he’s beaten before. His trainer Nicky Henderson is quoted as saying the ground is crucial, as his two dangers want it soft, and Altior wants it good, which as is often the case with trainer quotes, is total nonsense. Altior’s three best Timeform ratings in his career were for his 2018 Champion Chase win on soft ground, his Tingle Creek win on heavy in December 2018, and his win at Kempton on good later that month. There is absolutely nothing in his form to suggest he is better on good ground, and to suggest different is quite frankly laughable.
Defi Du Seuil won a slowly run JLT over two and half as a novice last year, before going down by just over four lengths to Chacun Pour Soi at Punchestown without any apparent excuses. He was value for extra when beating Politologue by just over a length at Cheltenham on his reappearance, before beating Un De Sceaux a neck at Sandown in a well run Tingle Creek. He looked like winning three lengths when going on after the last, and possibly idled a bit close home, but equally he just might have had little left. Last time he again beat Un De Sceaux, this time much easier, but the pace was a farce and the second clearly found the sprint from three out against him. Marracudja who is exposed and won a handicap off just 134 last time, was only beaten seven lengths, so in winning easily Defi Du Seuil did nothing more than you would expect from him, so whatever you thought of him before the race you certainly shouldn’t be changing that opinion based on that, yet that is what plenty of people seem to have done.
Defi Du Seuil has been impressive in slowly run races at Cheltenham twice, and Ascot last time, but the two times he got a true run race over two miles, over fences, he was beaten at Punchestown, and looked all out to beat the near twelve year old Un De Sceaux, who wasn’t good enough to win a Champion Chase when at his best, so he needs to improve to trouble a peak form Altior.
Chacun Pour Soi had four runs in France back in 2015/16, but was off for three years before making a winning debut for Willie Mullins in a beginners chase at Naas last March. He took a huge rise in class in his stride when beating Defi Du Seuil by just over four lengths, with Duc Des Genievres another sixteen lengths back in third at Punchestown next time. I’m always wary off supposed improved form at Punchestown in May, as the horses primed for Cheltenham in March can often be over the top, but he did go off just 3/1 that day, so it certainly wasn’t unexpected, and even a cautious view would leave you thinking he was highly promising at least.
It was a little disappointing that he got beaten at Leopardstown over Christmas on his seasonal debut, as A Plus Tard hasn’t looked like a top two mile prospect before, and the proximity of Ordinary World in a well run race suggests the form is nothing special, but he looked to improve a good bit when beating Min by almost four lengths back at the same track last time. It was a properly run race, and he jumped really well, so will have no trouble with the pace of a top two mile contest. If there’s a negative from the race it’s that he didn’t go right away, as he looked like he might on the approach to the last. Sectionals show it was a bit of a slow motion finish, but Min who stays further wasn’t gaining on him at all after the last, and contrary to some opinions I’ve read, which questioned his stamina for the Champion Chase with an uphill finish, I think the fact that in an attritional race after getting close to the last, that he went away again after, shows he’ll have no trouble with the Cheltenham test, which is after-all run over more than a furlong shorter trip. On the negative side in a race run at that gallop, while Min is a very good horse, it would be very likely Altior at his best would have beaten him by a good bit more than four lengths.
At this stage it’s hard to know what else will run in this, and likely pace on the day will have a huge factor on how I’d rate each runners chances. Altior clearly needs a sound pace, I think Chacun has more pace than him, but would still want an honest gallop, as he could be a bit free off a steady pace, and he wouldn’t be able to use his umping as much either, while Defi Du Seuil has thus far been at his most impressive winning slowly run races. I’d have no real interest in having a bet at the current prices, and of the big three then 9/4 about Defi looks the most out of line, as I think he looks more like a 7/2 or 4/1 shot. It’s a race to look forward to, and lets hope the big three get there in top form on the day.