Of all the field, VINNDICATION has the most potential and he looked well ahead of the handicapper when winning at Ascot in November.
The seven-year-old has excellent festival form having finished second on his two runs at the meeting, and it could be argued he was a touch unlucky not to have done better on both occasions. He was set a lot to do in the Martin Pipe two years ago and last year he just got outstayed by Le Breuil in that brutal National Hunt Chase. Furthermore, he has had a wind operation since disappointing over hurdles at Limerick just after Christmas, always goes well fresh and the ground looks sure to be in his favour come raceday.
The big guns always have their sights trained on the festival opener and this year is no exception with plenty of ammunition for Nicky Henderson, Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, who between them have won six of the past seven runnings. Henderson’s exciting Shishkin cemented his place at the head of the ante-post market with an impressive Huntingdon victory and stablemates Chantry House and Glynn could line up too. Mullins has Asterion Forlonge, who is top on Racing Post Ratings after his Grade 1 success at Leopardstown, and handy back-up with Janidil, while Elliott has a strong contender in Abacadabras and would have another if Envoi Allen was diverted here from the Ballymore. Colin Tizzard looks set to saddle Fiddlerontheroof and Master Debonair from his strong team of novice hurdlers, while Henry de Bromhead has a shout with Captain Guinness.
An official rating of 140 was required to get into this prestigious handicap chase last year and Beware The Bear (off 151) became the second winner in the past three runnings with a mark higher than 150. In 2017 Un Temps Pour Tout (off 155) carried 11st 12lb, the highest winning weight since Different Class with 11st 13lb in 1967. Before that recent raising of the bar, the last winner with a mark higher than 150 was in 1983. In 2018 Coo Star Sivola became just the third winning favourite since 1977 (the others were Antonin at 4-1 in 1994 and Wichita Lineman at 5-1 in 2009) but shock results have been fairly rare with 15 of the past 20 winners returned at 10-1 or lower. Un Temps Pour Tout, 9-1 when he won the race for the second year in a row in 2017, was the first back-toback winner since Scot Lane in 1983, with Sentina (1957-1958) the only other to achieve the feat. With his first victory, Un Temps Pour Tout became the first horse since Dixton House in 1989 to land the prize having not won a race over fences before, although he did continue the recent trend of inexperienced chasers taking this competitive handicap. In the last ten years only two horses, Golden Chieftain (2013) and The Druids Nephew (2015), had run more than ten times over fences before landing the prize. Beware The Bear was having his tenth chase run when he won last year. While second-season chasers have traditionally done well, Coo Star Sivola’s win in 2018 meant a raw novice has landed the race five times in the last 15 runnings. Eight-year-olds have won the race eight times since the turn of the millennium, along with five seven-year-olds. Together they account for 68 per cent of winners (13-19) in that period. The only winner in the past 14 years without any previous course form was the Irishtrained Dun Doire, who completed a six-timer over fences in this race for Tony Martin in 2006. While Irish-bred horses account for ten of the last 12 winners, those trained across the Irish Sea have not done so well, having been successful only twice since 1966 with Youlneverwalkalone (2003) and Dun Doire.
Ireland has won four of the last five runnings and has a strong hand again, although for a change it is not Willie Mullins who has the leading candidate. Henry de Bromhead, who won this race with Sizing Europe in 2010, has a big chance with Notebook following a pair of Grade 1 victories at the major Leopardstown meetings in which he had Mullins’ Cash Back and the Joseph O’Brien-trained Fakir D’Oudairies back in second. Those two are Notebook’s main rivals in the ante-post market but clearly have some ground to make up. The British challenge is led by the Olly Murphy-trained Brewin’upastorm, who ran well at the festival as a novice hurdler and has stepped up over fences. Other contenders for the home team include Global Citizen (trained by Ben Pauling), Mister Fisher (Nicky Henderson), Esprit Du Large (Evan Williams) and Maire Banrigh (Dan Skelton).
Seven-year-olds have the best record in this race, with seven successes in 15 runnings, although younger horses are starting to hold sway with six-year-olds having been successful in four of the last seven renewals and A Plus Tard last year becoming the second five-year-old winner after Chapoturgeon in 2009. The 2016 scorer Ballyalton (aged nine) was the oldest winner. The first six runnings were on the New course over 2m5f but it was then moved to the Old course over a slightly shorter distance and there has been a growing accent on quality. The last eight winners had an official rating of 137 or more, with Hunt Ball achieving the best weight-carrying performance in the race’s history when securing the 2012 edition off a mark of 142 under 12st. The ceiling rating is now 145, raised from 140 in 2017, and in the last three years a rating of 137 has been the minimum requirement to get in. Strong recent form is important, with 12 of the 15 winners having secured a top-two finish last time out, seven of them winning. Winners have been prominent in the betting, with 13 sent off at odds between 9-2 and 12-1. The biggest-priced winner was L’Antartique at 20-1 in 2007.
This is the oldest race at the festival but no longer out on its own as the longest, with the race distance reduced to 3m6f (the same as the Cross Country Chase) and two fewer fences to jump. It was awarded Listed status in 2014, and raised to Grade 2 in 2017, and has become more of a stamina-laden RSA Chase in quality. Seven of the last nine winners have been single-figure odds and four of the last nine winners had the highest official rating, while Shotgun Paddy (top-rated in 2014) was beaten only a neck and, despite his odds of 16-1, Tiger Roll was second-highest in 2017. The big yards have dominated in recent years and it has been a happy hunting ground for the Irish with Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott winning five times between them in the last nine runnings. The favourite won three years in a row up to 2013 but since then the market leader’s finishing position has been 0045UF.
This is a golden age for hurdling mares and such is the quality in their ranks that the best of them might be diverted from this race to the festival’s premier events in open company. Henry de Bromhead’s unbeaten Honeysuckle was still being aimed at this contest after her victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle – and this is possibly her best distance – but clearly she has strong claims in the preceding opening-day feature. The same could be said of Willie Mullins’ Benie Des Dieux, who looked poised to win this race for a second year when she fell at the last 12 months ago, and her versatility is such that the Stayers’ Hurdle is a live option too. The Gordon Elliott-trained Apple’s Jade, beaten favourite in last year’s Champion Hurdle, is another former winner who could line up here, while two who only hold this entry are Dan Skelton’s Roksana, the game but somewhat fortunate beneficiary of Benie Des Dieux’s fall last year, and Stormy Ireland from the Mullins team. Other possibles include Laurina, also trained by Mullins, Phil Kirby’s much-loved Lady Buttons and last year’s Grand National runner-up Magic Of Light for Jessica Harrington.
Last year there was an upset when dual winner Buveur D’Air’s early fall paved the way to victory for 16-1 shot Espoir D’Allen in the same JP McManus colours and plenty of connections will feel they are in with a chance in the 2020 edition. Espoir D’Allen’s sad demise last summer robbed us of the chance to see him again and leading hopes Buveur D’Air, Klassical Dream and Saldier are missing through injury, leaving the door wide open. Even in Buveur D’Air’s absence Nicky Henderson has two of the leading candidates in McManus’s progressive mare Epatante, winner of the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, and last year’s Triumph Hurdle scorer Pentland Hills. Willie Mullins, having suffered the double blow of Klassical Dream and Saldier being ruled out, could send his star mare Benie Des Dieux for this prize, in a similar scenario to his success with Annie Power in 2016, and has another option in Cilaos Emery after his successful switch back to hurdling. The third big-name mare in the frame is the Henry de Bromheadtrained Honeysuckle, who took her unbeaten record to seven with victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle but may head for the Mares’ Hurdle instead. In such a confusing year, however, a host of others have a shout, from second-season hurdlers like Thomas Darby to veterans such as Ballyandy.