The Cross Country Chase may not be one of the main Championship races at the Cheltenham Festival but it remains hugely popular with fans and once again this season we are likely to have a thrilling race. The race offers punters and racegoers something different each season as the horses and jockeys make their way around the centre of the Prestbury Park track, covering a distance of three miles and seven furlongs in the process.
The Cross Country Chase was first run in 2005 but it has quickly become a staple of the festival with the race set to be run on day two this season. There are a number of clear trial races for punters to sink their teeth into and once again it looks as though we are in for a cracking renewal. Several horses have made an impression on the Cross Country division in the build-up to March and the field will be packed full of familiar names.
One that has to come into consideration is Big Shu (5/1) who is the defending champion and bang on course for a big defence of his title. The nine-year-old had his first start of the campaign recently when finishing a close up second behind Love Rory at Punchestown and it was hard not to be impressed with the run.
It was his first start since wining at the Punchestown Festival in 2013 and he is sure to come on for the run which can only be a positive for his chances at Cheltenham. Conditions won't be a problem for Big Shu as he showed last season by winning on good to soft at Cheltenham, followed by a heavy ground victory at Punchestown.
The aforementioned Love Rory (8/1) was triumphant in that big race at Punchestown recently and his defeat of Big Shu ensures that he too has leading claims with Cheltenham in mind. Add to that the fact that he is trained by Enda Bolger and it is easy to see why the six-year-old is among the favourites for the Festival race. Bolger has trained the winner of the Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham four times out of the nine renewals.
Garde Champetre was perhaps the best of the Bolger horses and the feeling is that he could have something special on his hands with Love Rory. This will be the first time the horse has travelled to Cheltenham though with his relative inexperience a negative in search a testing race. That could however be off-set by the appointment of Nina Carberry in the irons, with her experience around the middle of Cheltenham second to none.
The only non-Irish winner of this race came in 2012 when Balthazar King (6/1) secured the win for trainer Philip Hobbs and he too is on course to head back to the Festival this season. The ten-year-old is one of the most popular horses in training and on class is perhaps the best potential runner in the ante-post market.
Balthazar King could hardly be in any better form this season with three wins on the bounce to his name, including over the Cross Country course and distance at Cheltenham back in November. That alone is enough to ensure that he is to be respected here although he does also have the Grand National as an aim which could put off some, given that it comes so quickly after Cheltenham. The ground is also of paramount importance to Balthazar King with goodish ground essential to his chances at Cheltenham and Aintree in the Spring, which should come into the minds of ante-post punters.
Paul Nicholls had his first ever Cross Country winner earlier this season with Sire Collonges (8/1) and he too is an interesting Festival contender for this race. The eight-year-old was down the field behind Balthazar King in November but returned to Prestbury Park in December to win the Cross Country race at the International Meeting.
Sire Collonges was once considered a promising chaser but after losing his way it now appears that the unique obstacles and trip could suit him down the ground. The grey showed plenty of stamina to win that race in December ahead of Any Currency, who is expected to re-match him at the Festival. Sire Collonges could still have improvement in this sphere which is interesting, while Any Currency (12/1) is a hugely consistent horse for Martin Keighley but is likely to be a bit short of winning this one.
Punters looking for a potential winner of the Cross country Chase at a bigger price may be able to find some decent value. The ante-post market is littered with experienced Cross Country horses who are more than capable on their day, of producing something from the top draw. Experience is a major factor in this discipline while the ability to stay is equally as important given the gruelling nature of the event.
One that certainly falls into that category is Arabella Boy (16/1) who is another potential runner for Enda Bolger. As we have already mentioned, all Bolger runners are to be respected and this nine-year-old certainly falls into that category. He has been off since finishing seventh in the Punchestown Festival race last season but if he returns fit and well, there is no doubt that Arabella Boy could offer some each-way potential next month.
Other than Balthazar King, the only other past winner likely to return to Prestbury Park is the consistent Sizing Australia (12/1). The Henry De Bromhead trained in-mate tasted Festival glory back in 2011 and could return next month in one last bid for glory. He was last seen unseating his rider in the Becher Chase at Aintree but he certainly remains among the elite of the Cross Country division. He finished fifth in the race last season and will be bidding to emulate A New Story, who won the Cross Country Chase as a 12-year-old in 2010.
There may have only been nine renewals of the Cross Country Chase but already there are one or two trends emerging. The key one, as already mentioned, is that Irish trainers have won eight of the nine races with Balthazar King the sole British success to-date.
Balthazar King is the best horse in the race but his chances are impacted massively by the conditions and given the wet winter to-date, that certainly does put us off in the ante-post market. Love Rory is the progressive young horse for Enda Bolger but his lack of inexperience may see him just fall short when it matters. All of that leads to Big Shu who has the experience, the class and the ability to perform in anything from good to soft, to bottomless ground. He ran a blinder on seasonal debut behind Love Rory recently and given that he should improve for the run, it is Big Shu who is taken to reverse the form and win the race for a second year-in-a-row.