'Quelle surprise', another Cheltenham Festival ante post race update, another headline dominated by a Willie Mullins trained runner! Sarcasm aside and not wanting this Queen Mother Champion Chase preview to turn in to another contribution to the growing debate about whether the stranglehold of Mullins, who trained a record eight winners at last year's meeting, is a good thing for the sport, it is impossible to start at any other point than market leader, Un De Sceaux, who is one of 11 ante post favourites for Mullins at the time of writing.
Ironically, of the four championship races at Cheltenham, Mullins has only ever won one, the Champion Hurlde, but in Un De Sceaux, the odds suggest that the 59-year-old's wait for for another flagship victory at the Festival could end on day two of the 2016 meeting. Last year's Arkle winner is currently a best price 8/11 to win the feature race on the Wednesday, following an impressive five length victory in the Clarence House Chase, last weekend, a race that the last three Queen Mother winners have won en route to Prestbury Park victory. Furthermore, five Arkle winners since 2002 have won the race 12 months after winning the Arkle.
That win at Ascot was the 14th of Un De Sceaux's 16 race career, and the eight-year-old is showing no signs of slowing down as his latest win illustrates, beating this season's Tingle Creek and 2014 Champion Chase winner, Sire De Grugy, a result that saw him allocated an official rating of 174, making him the second highest chaser currently in training behind Cue Card (176).
The two blemishes in Un De Sceaux's otherwise unbeaten run are down to falls, the latest of which came as recently as December when he fell two form home as the 1/4 favourite in his first race outside of novice company at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting. The other fall came in his first start over fences, 14 months ago, but the mere fact that question marks exist about his jumping should be enough for any big hitters looking to get stuck in to the odds-on quotes a second thought, whilst giving any value hunters hope that they can find an alternative in the market should the Mullins favourite fail to win.
The Leading Contenders
The horse that bookmakers rate as the biggest danger to Un De Sceaux is Sprinter Sacre, who is the 5/1 second favoruite with Paddy Power to regain the title he won in 2013. He couldn't defend his QMCC crown in 2014 due to injury, before pulling up in last year's race, however, back-to-back wins from two starts this term suggest that the 10-year-old is somewhere near to the kind of form that saw him demolish his six rivals by 19 lengths two years ago. Whether he will ever reach those heights again remains a doubt but it would be dangerous to rule him out and rates a very attractive bet in the each-way and 'without Un De Sceaux' (9/4 with Skybet) markets.
Another Willie Mullins inmate in the form of Vautour is also included in the market with prices ranging from 2/1 to 8/1 but it is unlikely that he will run in the race, with the Ryanair Chase the most likely target.
Last year's winner, Dodging Bullets, is currently a 10/1 chance, more than double the 9/2 odds that he was when winning the race last March. The Paul Nicholls runner hasn't been seen since that victory, with the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury earmarked as the prep race ahead of his Queen Mother defence. It's quite an insult to see the reigning champ at such big odds and whislt it was by no means a vintage renewal of the race in 2015, at just eight-years-old, Dodging Bullets should have more to offer and at the current odds makes plenty of each way appeal, as victory at Newbury in a couple of weeks time would surely see his price contract.
Best Of The Rest
Irish trainer, Henry De Bromhead, saddled Sizing Europe to victory in this race in 2011 and Special Tiara is his entry this year. The 14/1 chance has run in the past two Queen Mother Champion Chases without making an impression, finishing sixth and third, respectivley. He finished second by three quarters of a length in the Tingle Creek behind Sprinter Sacre, in December, suggeting he's in good form and can certainly make his presence felt at this grade but a win would be a surprise, and a place is the best this Irish Raide can hope for again.
Simonsig is a more interesting contender, having won the Arkle in 2013 before suffering a setback that kept him off the track for two and half years, only making his return in November, last year, where he finished second to Bobs Worth in a Hurdle at Aintree. The Nicky Henderson trained 10-year-old has obviously got to prove he still has some ability over fences but that fitness test should have done him a world of good and it'll be interesting to see how he does if the Game Spirit is to be his next stop on the road to the Festival. It would be foolish to say he can win the Queen Mother, but at odds of 14/1, nobody could be begrudged a bet on a horse that was so impressive when last seen over fences, albeit three years ago.
Un De Sceaux sets such a high benchmark for the other Queen Mother entries to follow, that it is hard to make a case about the Willie Mullins runner not winning and for anybody happy to back an 8/11 shot, good luck holding your nerve at every fence! If you are looking for value at this stage, it could pay dividends to side with Dodging Bullets. The reigning champion has been disrespected by the layers and whilst it's not a glamorous pick, he should run his race at 10/1 and if the favourite doesn't live up to the hype, the Paul Nicholls charge looks the type to take advantage.
Selection: Dodging Bullets @ 6/1 (each way) with bet365 in the QMCC market without Un De Sceuax