It may not be every racing aficionados cup of tea, but the Cross Country Chase has been a regular feature over the last decade at the Cheltenham Festival, as the idiosyncratic test provides a host of thrills and spills and down the years has produced some memorable moments. Jumping a multitude of weird and wonderful obstacles, this race has been won in the past by the likes of dual winners Garde Champetre and Balthazar King, with the travelling Irish raiders having a phenomenal record in the 3m 7f marathon. We preview this unqiue festival contest which will take place on the second day of the four-day National Hunt extravaganza and try to dig out the winner in what will be a wide open affair on March 11.
Main Cross Country Chase Contenders
With reigning champion Balthazar King likely to bypass the Cross Country Chase in favour of a tilt at the Grand National then the head of the market has a wide open look to it, but spearheading the ante-post betting at the moment is the Martin Keighley-trained Any Currency, who is a best-priced 5/1 to grab glory.
A regular figure in this event, the 11-year-old was beaten a short-head in last year's race in what was one of the most memorable finishes of the entire festival. He has continued his improvement this season and was a mightily-impressive 12-length winner over the Cross Country race at the International meeting in December and if he can repeat that effort then he's entitled to be currently heading the betting.
Finally getting his head in front in this discipline would've been a real positive for the Keighley stable and stamina is certainly his forte, but he can make hard work of it on occasions and he's often off the bridle a long way from home, so will definitely do it the hard way. He will plough on at the same pace and will be doing his best work in the closing stages, but he could well be vulnerable to an improver in this sphere.
Enda Bolger will unleash a sensational battalion for this race once more and the four-times winning trainer's team will be led by Love Rory, who is next in with the bookmakers at 7/1 and has some smart form in Ireland in the Cross Country division.
Being a six-year-old he's sure to be open to some vast improvement and he has sparkled at Punchestown on more than one occasion and was last seen beating the likes of Keep On Track and previous Cheltenham hero the ill-fated Big Shu in the Risk Of Thunder Chase. However, he was a disappointing tenth in last year's festival race and that will be a huge worry for his followers as he was a distant 52 lengths behind Any Currency and that will be a huge gap to reel in.
Bolger will also saddle the exciting Be Positive, who at 7/1 looks an attractive proposition, as he is open to significant improvement in this sphere and could be that contender on the upgrade that can just oust Any Currency from victory.
He will don the famous green and gold silks of JP McManus, who has tasted success in this race with the likes of Spotthe Difference and Garde Champetre, and a fine 11-length win at the Punchestown Festival highlighted his class, before a narrow defeat to Sizing Australia in the Irish Field Chase left you with a sense he's sure to build on that come March and at the odds is a terrific bet.
The aforementioned Sizing Australia is currently a 12/1 shot, but Henry de Bromhead's charge has struggled on his last few visits to Prestbury Park and at 12 years old is not going to have the improvement that some of his rivals possess, so he can be ignored, whilst Willie Mullins's Uncle Junior (20/1) is another that has seen better days and was tailed off over course and distance in December an is regressing in the division.
In a market that has a plethora of runners hovering around the 8/1 to 10/1 mark, Quantitativeeasing was a decent second behind Any Currency in December and is still relatively new to the Cross Country arena and warrants respect, whilst Paul Nicholls's Sire Collonges has tasted success around the undulations of GL50, but could only finish third behind Balthazar King in November and will need to build on that if he is to land the prize at 10/1.
Philip Hobbs and Richard Johnson will not go to battle this year with Balthazar King, but they can team up with Duke Of Lucca, who if completing could be on the vicinity at 10/1. A faller in December, the nine-year-old showed his ability when landing a competitive Aintree event last April and if he can just replicate that in this Cross Country test then he can build on last year's fourth place and be a major player.
Worth A Second Look
In such a wide open division then it's hard to rule out a host of other contenders and there's an array of horses that are worth a second look when filtering through the form guides for this second day spectacle, which will bring a different test to the Cheltenham Festival.
Star Neuville could be another Bolger inmate taking his chance and whilst he's never performed positively at Cheltenham before he has shown the odd glimpse of ability in Ireland and whilst under his master trainer's stewardship he can't be completely ignored at 14/1.
Perhaps one of the most interesting recruits to Bolger's yard is Micheal Flips, who in 2012 was a decent fourth in the JLT Novices' Chase, and if he takes to the Cross Country game then could be a worthy each-way play at 14/1, whilst former Hennessy hero Carruthers is another that at his pomp was a fine performer over fences and a decent third behind Any Currency in December, he is another that will attract some notable attention at 20/1 with most firms.
Of the others, Keep On Track (20/1) was fancied to feature in December, but was very disappointing and he will need to record a career best here, whilst Imperial Circus is just another that could take his chance, but on all known form he has a lot to find to figure in what will be an ultra-competitive renewal.
Many will head to the festival feeling that the likes of the Coral Cup and County Hurdle will be the toughest betting races, but this year's Cross Country Chase has a sensationally wide open look to it that it's going to be very tough to have a real positive view on one particular runner in the 3m 7f marathon.
With Balthazar King not lining up to try and bag a hat-trick it will be Any Currency that will be the home favourite as he aims to follow on from his December victory. However, he has shown before that he can make things tough for his jockey from a long way out and even though the persistent galloper will run to the line, he could well just be vulnerable to an up-and-coming talent.
Enda Bolger is a man you write off at your peril and the specialist Cross Country handler will have a strong team headed by Love Rory, who seems to do his best work in Ireland. So, it maybe worth sticking with the potentially progressive Be Positive, who is new to the sphere and has the scope to come on leaps and bounds as we get nearer to the festival, and the exuberance of youth could well just prevail and at 7/1 is the one to be with.