Altior has beaten the vast majority of his rivals already this season, producing a performance on a par with his win in this last year when beating three rivals (including Un de Sceaux) on his reappearance in the Tingle Creek at Sandown in December, before recording clear-cut successes in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton later that month and the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January.
Altior jumped distinctly left-handed at Ascot, a habit that Nicky Henderson said was picked up from the front-running Special Tiara when they met at Kempton, but he has generally jumped superbly throughout his career, and Ascot is a track where chasers are sometimes prone to jumping markedly left. Altior is a considerable way clear of the field on Timeform ratings and has a ‘small p’ attached to his rating to boot, meaning he could be open to more improvement yet, and as such is impossible to oppose for win purposes.
Solving the Mullins puzzle
The main opposition to Altior comes from the Willie Mullins yard, but even at the six-day entry stage it is proving tricky to work out which of his trio will take their chance; as Footpad, Un de Sceaux and Min all remain in the field.
As it stands, it seems most likely that Footpad will head to the Ryanair Chase, but on Timeform ratings he would be the biggest danger to Altior. He set himself out as a creditable threat in this division during a stellar novice campaign last season, winning the Arkle Chase in emphatic fashion, but things haven’t gone to plan so far this season, suffering defeats on both of his starts at Naas and Leopardstown. Though he would be a danger if rediscovering the form that resulted in such an electric performance at this meeting 12 months ago, he now has something to prove. Un de Sceaux, the 2017 Ryanair winner who pushed Altior all the way in the Tingle Creek in December, seemingly needs heavy ground to be seen to best effect these days, meaning that the longer trip provided by the Ryanair is perhaps the better option.
By my powers of deduction, that leaves Altior’s old foe Min as the likeliest challenger from Closutton. Min has twice met Altior in his career, enduring seven-length defeats on both occasions, most recently in this race last year. It’s very difficult to fault that run, however, as Min produced a top-class performance that was good enough to win several recent renewals of the race. He was travelling noticeably better than Altior three out, but found him too strong in the finish. Though Min has looked as good as ever in two wins this season, in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase (by one and a half lengths from Shattered Love) in December and the Dublin Chase at Leopardstown (simple task, by six lengths from Ordinary World) in February, he may run a career-best but find his old rival too strong once more.The field lacks strength in depth behind the main protagonists, as several who are still in the field have multiple targets. It seems more likely that Hell’s Kitchen will head to the Ryanair than take his chance in this, while Lady Buttons also holds an entry in the Mares’ Hurdle. Meanwhile, Politologue looks set to head straight to Aintree, and Fox Norton misses the race through injury.
Best of the rest
The veteran God’s Own has a top level win on his CV and has run with credit in his two starts at Grade 2 level this term, including winning the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter in November, but he has consistently fallen short in this race, for all he was an 18-length third last season.
Saint Calvados and Sceau Royal were behind Altior and Un de Sceaux in the Tingle Creek at Sandown, finishing third and fourth respectively. Sceau Royal was put in his place that day, but his excellent win on the reappearance in the Grade 2 Shloer Chase at Cheltenham 13 days earlier could well have taken the edge off him. He bounced back to finish an excellent second in the Grade 2 Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton last month and will likely be ridden to pick up the pieces late on, but at a bigger price, Saint Calvados looks the better each-way option.
Admittedly, Saint Calvados has been put in his place on two occasions at Grade 1 level since winning the Poplar Square Chase at Naas (where Footpad was beaten when falling), but he generally runs his race and is capable of very smart form at his peak. It’s plausible that he will be allowed the run of things up front, and while he may prove vulnerable to the challenges of Altior and Min late on, he is capable of hitting the frame, and seems over-priced as an each-way proposition at 40/1.
The field is completed by Castlegrace Paddy. He's an improving chaser, winning the Grade 2 Hilly Way Chase at Cork in December in decisive fashion, and though he’s worth his place in this company, he seemingly needs testing ground to be seen to best effect. He also took a heavy fall at the first in the Dublin Chase when last seen.
In summary, it’s impossible to oppose Altior in his bid to win back-to-back renewals of this race, particularly when you consider that several creditable rivals are missing either through injury or in favour of other targets. Min is likely to put up a strong fight, but he will likely need Altior to run below-form to take this and is short enough in his own right in the ‘without the favourite’ market. As such, it may be worth supporting Saint Calvados each-way. He’s so far had his limitations exposed at this level, but he’s still only six, and could be allowed to bowl along in front; provided he runs his race, he looks over-priced at 40/1.
Back Saint Calvados each-way in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at 40/1