There’s a cracking couple of weeks of National Hunt racing coming up for punters to sink their teeth into, and the first meeting of note takes place at Ascot this weekend.
There’s a stacked card as always at one of the homes of racing, but it is the featured contest – the Clarence House Chase – that really whets the appetite.
This Group 1 affair features a £125,000 bounty and is also considered one of the most instructive races prior to the Cheltenham Festival: in all, some six Clarence House Chase winners have gone on to claim glory in the Champion Chase in the very same season.
The inaugural winner of this race was Desert Orchid, which gives you a flavour of the pedigree of this renewal, with the list of former champions also including Master Minded, Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy, among many other notable alumni. As an indicator of chase quality goes, few races offer as much of an insight.
Un De Sceaux is the defending champion, and the Willie Mullins horse is looking to make a slice of Clarence House history on Saturday. If he can take the tape in first again it will be three straight victories in this renewal for the gelding – a first for this renewal – and he would also become the first ten-year-old since Meikleour to take the honours.
So will Un De Sceaux provide his connections with hat-trick heaven this weekend, or will another horse poop the party?
It was something o a gift 12 months ago for Un De Sceaux when the Clarence House Chase was moved to Cheltenham after Ascot was deemed unraceable.
The ten-year-old has an outstanding pedigree on the Cheltenham trail, and while his sole visit to Ascot yielded the first of his successes in this renewal he found it tough going as the 1/2 favourite in a five-horse field, eventually seeing off the advances of Sire De Grugy.
Perhaps a return to Ascot offers the rest in the field this week a chance then, and so to do the history books: it has been 28 years since a runner going off at the age of ten has triumphed in this contest.
But then, Un De Sceaux re-wrote a slice of history 12 months ago when he became the first nine-year-old since 2006 to take the spoils. Perhaps where this much-revered powerhouse is concerned age is just a number.
He certainly suggested as much in his seasonal return last time out at Cork, where he trounced the field by 25 lengths to land the Grade 2 Hilly Way Chase. It was noticeable that the fourth favourite with the bookmakers for this Clarence House Chase, Top Gamble, was well back in Ireland and never looked like getting close to the imperious winner.
We never particularly enjoy taking odds-on chances in Group 1 encounters, but in truth it appears as though Un De Sceaux has scared off many of his more worthy adversaries. The eight horse field is packed with novices, journeymen and those taking a step down in trip, and so by that token the 4/6 on him to land the remarkable hat-trick is very much good value.
Use Your Brain
As far as the bookmakers are concerned, the horse most likely to challenge Un De Sceaux for dominance is a novice making just this third start over fences.
If that sounds slightly bizarre then that’s because it is: Brain Power, a seven-year-old from Nicky Henderson’s yard, has been backed in from 8/1 to 11/4 in the past few days alone.
Some of that will come from Henderson’s own form – he saddled four winners last Saturday (incidentally on the same day he got married), but punters can only read too much into that: backing Brain Power here is a gamble in all senses of the word.
He outclassed the field on debut at Kempton, admittedly, but signs of inexperience were clear for all to see as he unseated David Mullins in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase last time out.
In Group 1 outings we like to bet on class, not potential, and so on this occasion Brain Power won’t be seeing a penny of our hard-earned.
Hawke Eyes Ascot Prize
One outsider who we’re certainly interested in is Speredek (20/1), who has bumped along in a rich vein of form.
A run of 1-2-1-1-1-1 speaks volumes, and while this is undoubtedly a step up in class the seven-year-old has shown plenty of upside of late.
A win in heavy conditions at Sandown on January leaves us questioning whether trainer Nigel Hawke is rushing back his steed too quickly, but the chance to compete for a big prize with a horse straining at the stirrups is often too much to bear.
— Francesca Altoft (@FranAltoftPhoto) February 18, 2017
With question marks against the names of those immediately beneath Un De Sceaux in the betting, a punt on Speredek might be a wily option with most sportsbooks paying two places for each way flutters.