Ever since cruising to a 19 length victory in the race last year, all the talk in the build up to the 2014 renewal of the Queen Mother Champion Chase at has revolved around Sprinter Sacre being able to retain the crown he won with such ease 12 months ago.
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In what was arguably one of the most breathtaking victories in not only the history of the Champion Chase but any race in living memory at the Cheltenham Festival, Sprinter Sacre's success last March saw the Nicky Henderson stable star instantly quoted at odds as short as 2/5 to repeat that feat and subsequent wins at Aintree and Punchestown in April only heightened expectations further. At the age of just seven, the question was not whether he could win the Champion Chase for a second consecutive season but for how many more years could this hugely exciting prospect dominate the two mile chasing division?
Sprinter Sacre's first run of the new season was scheduled for the Tingle Creek at Sandown in early December but he was withdrawn from the race after results of a tracheal wash were not satisfactory and the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton's Christmas meeting was the preferred option for connections. However, with an eleventh straight win in his sights, the bay gelding was pulled up by Barry Geraghty when 2/9 favourite to win the Grade One event at the Surrey track with an irregular heartbeat cited as the reason for his below par effort.
It has since been reported that Sprinter Sacre's heartbeat has return to normal and the reports from the Seven Barrows stable are that the now eight-year-old is very much on course to defend his Queen Mother Champion Chase title but his price has drifted following that health scare and he can now be backed at 4/5 with Paddy Power to win the feature race on the Wednesday of the four day meeting.
The current odds are seemingly massive based on his course and distance record of three wins from three starts, especially considering the manner in which he won his last start at the Gloucestershire venue 12 months ago. However, it will be a brave punter who gets stuck into an odds-on shot who has yet to complete a race in 11 months. As such, there's no doubting that Sprinter Sacre sets the standard on all known form and if he is back to his best, he'll no doubt win once again but the question mark surrounding his fitness is too big to ignore and there are plenty of rivals waiting to capitalise should the champion fail to fire on all cylinders once more.
Chief danger is Sire De Grugy, who has risen to prominence over the past couple of months as a result of Sprinter Sacre's misfortune. The Gary Moore trained runner has won his last three starts, landing a quick fire double in December with victory in the Tingle and Desert Orchid Chase before taking the Grade One Clarence House Chase in emphatic style last month, eleven lengths ahead of his nearest rival. That trio of wins has seen the eight-year-old's odds tumble for the Champion Chase from 25/1 in to a now best price of 11/4 but anybody looking to get stuck in at that price should be aware that he has finished second on both his chase starts at Cheltenham.
Kid Cassidy was the one who got the better of him at the Open meeting in November but Sire de Grugy was conceding 10lbs to the Nicky Henderson trained winner that day and off level-weights come the 12th March, it is hard not to see that form being reversed.
Kid Cassidy is currently a 16/1 chance to win the Champion Chase and whilst Nicky Henderson knows exactly what it takes to win the race having won it on three occasions, the Berkshire trainer would probably be the first to admit he doesn't possess the same ability of Sprinter Sacre and Finian's Rainbow, who have seen the 63-year-old pick up this prestigious prize for the past two years. However, it could be argued that Prestbury Park brings the best out of the JP McManus owned Kid Cassidy and with AP McCoy likely to take the ride, he has to be respected as an each-way chance.
Ireland's best hope for a first win in the race since Sizing Europe won in 2011 is Benefficient, who finished 60 lengths in front of Kid Cassidy when the two met in the Grade One Paddy Power dial-a-bet Chase at Leopardstown in December. The Tony Martin trained eight-year-old was the 20/1 winner of the Jewson Novices' Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last year and has been tried over a variety of distances during his chasing career, including 3m 1f in the Charlie Hall earlier this season. Two of his four wins over fences though have come over 2m 1f, including that latest win, suggesting that the Queen Mother should be well within his range and having won on a variety of ground conditions, stamina will not be a problem should the ground come up soft or heavy and as such, this 10/1 chance must also enter calculations if this was to be his chose race but the Ryanair Chase on the Thursday is thought to be his preferred target.
Captain Conan is another who holds entries for both the Queen Mother and Ryanair Chase but the Nicky Henderson runner looks better suited for a tilt at the two mile championship race, despite the likelihood of stable-mates Sprinter Sacre and Kid Cassidy lining up alongside him. The seven-year-old French import is a reliable sort having been placed on eight of his 10 starts (five of which have been wins) since arriving at Seven Barrows from across the Channel two years ago. He beat Sire De Grugy by two lengths in an Arkle trial at Cheltenham 15 months ago, the form of which was reversed when the two last met in the Tingle Creek earlier this season, but back at Cheltenham it could be a different story and at 12/1, Captain Conan makes plenty of each-way appeal.
Of the remaining entries, it wouldn't be a Cheltenham championship race without the presence of a Willie Mullins runner and Arvika Ligeonniere will fly the flag for the 2013 top Cheltenham trainer. Four Grade One chase wins in Ireland for this nine-year-old cannot be overlooked but two previous trips to the Festival have proved fruitless, finishing fourth in the 2010 Albert Bartlett before pulling up in last year's Arkle. He has however won four of his five starts since his last trip to Prestbury Park, including an impressive 14 length demolition job in the Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown a couple of weeks ago. That will have provided the perfect preparation for another trip across the Irish Sea and any horse trained by Mullins and ridden by Ruby Walsh commands respect and he is currently a best price 14/1 chance in the ante post market.
Overall, the uncertainty surrounding Sprinter Sacre's fitness makes the 2014 renewal of the Queen Mother Champion Chase a tricky one to untangle. If the reigning champion does line up, trust must be placed in the judgement of Nicky Henderson that he is fit. That assumed, he has to be taken to win the race, however, he is not a betting proposition and of those mentioned, Captain Conan looks the value pick at 5/1 in the 'without Sprinter Sacre' market.