The Ryanair Chase has grown into a Festival favourite since it was introduced back in 2005 when the fourth day was added for the first time. It nearly always seems to produce a top class winner and that is likely to be the case again this season with a number of excellent horses set to take their chance next month. There is no clear favourite for the Grade 1 contest at this stage after a campaign which has seen a number of potential Ryanair contenders perform to a high standard and stake their Festival claims in the process.
Benefficient was a somewhat surprise winner of the Jewson Novices Chase last season and all the signs suggest that he is on target for the Ryanair next month. The Tony Martin trained eight-year-old sprinted clear of the field over course and distance 12 months ago and that alone is enough to ensure that he deserves the utmost respect here. His form this season has been solid to date, as he showed last time out when winning the Dial-A-Bet Chase over two miles and one furlong at Leopardstown just after Christmas.
Excellent horses like Arvika Ligeonniere and Sizing Europe were behind Benefficient that day at Leopardstown and that was an encouraging run ahead of the Festival. That is enough to ensure that he is a best price 5/1 for the Ryanair Chase although connections have said that the Champion Chase is also a possible for the horse if the ground comes up soft at Prestbury Park. The Ryanair is more than likely the target though and Benefficient certainly sets a solid form guide for punters looking to have a bet on this race.
The Ryanair Chase last season was won by Cue Card in excellent fashion and although he is available at 7/1 for this year's renewal, connections have made it perfectly clear that the Gold Cup is their main target. The Colin Tizzard trained horse pulled well clear of First Lieutenant in 2013 to win the Ryanair and while he is likely to miss the defence of his title, the runner-up is likely to be back.
The Mouse Morris trained First Lieutenant has been a rock solid Grade 1 performer for many years now and he would certainly have to come into consideration here. He was last seen finishing third in the Irish Hennessy and he is another one that has both the Gold Cup and the Ryanair as potential Festival targets. Gigginstown owner Michael O'Leary will clearly want a Ryanair horse this season though and given the form of Last Instalment over three miles, it is likely that First Lieutenant (7/1) will be given another crack down in trip.
Past Cheltenham form has proven vital when picking the Ryanair winner in the past and there is no doubt that First Lieutanent has that in abundance. He won the Neptune in 2011, he finished second in the 2012 RSA Chase and then as already mentioned, he finished second in the Ryanair Chase last season. The only horses to have beaten him at the Festival are Cue Card and Bobs Worth which means you would have to give him a chance of winning the Ryanair this season, if he turns up to the race fit and well.
Paul Nicholls won this race in 2007 with Taranis and he will be hoping to repeat that trick in 2014 with Al Ferof (6/1). The nine-year-old appeared to struggle with the three miles last time out in the Denman Chase at Newbury and connections have since said that the Ryanair Chase is his likely target. His best piece of form came at the Cheltenham Festival back in 2011 when he won the Supreme Novices Hurdle over two miles although it is fair to say that he hasn't quite hit those heights since.
Al Ferof did win the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Prestbury Park in 2012 which is certainly relevant with this race in mind and you do get the feeling that he is seen to best affect over the Ryanair distance. He returned from injury earlier this season and for much of the campaign he was was certainly on route to the Gold Cup but those plans have changed. He was slammed by Harry Topper in testing ground in the Denman Chase and a drop back in trip to the Ryanair is now on the cards, for which he has to be given a live chance if he can arrive at Prestbury Park in top condition.
David Pipe has long talked up the ability of Dynaste (8/1) and there is no doubt that the eight-year-old is another major contender in the Ryanair market. He was just behind Benefficient in the Jewson last season and he is another horse to have flirted with three miles during his career. He was last seen finishing fifth in the King George in testing conditions over Christmas when he was never travelling and he can be forgiven for that run.
Dynaste ran a career best to finish second in the Betfair Chase earlier in the season when he travelled and jumped with great enthusiasm which should give punters plenty of confidence with the Festival in mind. He won't mind a little bit of soft ground if he gets it next month and unlike some of his main market rivals, he is almost certain to run in the Ryanair Chase if he remains fit and well.
Punters looking for a little bit more value at a bigger price have a number of potential horses to consider. One that certainly falls into that bracket is Menorah (16/1) who is another horse who does offer a rock solid form line through the field. The Philip Hobbs horse won the Supreme Novices Hurdle back in 2010 and ever since then has been there or thereabouts at the top table of the sport. He was pulled up in the King George on his only start this season but with a bit of good ground, he has shown on numerous occasions that he is more than capable of running on into a place at a nice price.
Sizing Europe (20/1) maybe 12 now but his Cheltenham record always ensures that he is to be respected. He is something of a Festival legend having won the Arkle in 2010 and the Champion Chase in 2011 followed by two more second places in the Queen Mother in the last two years. He always seems to save his best for the Festvial and although he was only fourth in the Dial-A-Bet Chase over Christmas, behind Benefficeint, he will attract some each-way money on his first attempt at the Ryanair Chase.
The 2014 Ryanair may only be the tenth renewal of the race but there are some strong trends for punters to follow. The most glaring pointer is that eight of the nine winners to-date have won at Cheltenham previously with course form clearly important. It is also worth noting that the last five winners of the race had run in the King George prior to their festival success and that is clearly another strong trend to consider before having a bet.
The top four in the betting, if we assume Cue Card is heading to the Gold Cup, are all worthy contenders for the Ryanair and all four will have their supporters at this stage. First Lieutenant will run his race as he always does but his inability to get his head in front very often is a worry when push comes to shove at the business end. Al Ferof will be suited to the trip and has the Cheltenham form in the bank which makes him dangerous, while Benefficent showed twelve months ago, that he is more than capable of winning over this distance at Prestbury Park.
On this occasion though it is Dynaste who offers the most appeal at a slightly bigger price for David Pipe. He has a win at Cheltenham on his record which is important as the race trends suggest and his run in the King George was too bad to be true, ensuring he can be given another chance. If he can perform to the standard he showed when second to Cue Card in the Betfair Chase then Dynaste will have a massive chance here, especially considering he is around twice the price of the favourite. He lost out to Benefficent in the Jewson last year after the ground dried out very quickly but with the weather this season, Dynaste can reverse that form this time. Menorah certainly does make some appeal at an each-way price if the ground comes up decent but it is Dynaste who is taken to score.