Thrilling Ryanair promises to soar as two Cheltenham Festival favourites clash
Probably we shouldn’t reduce the £350,000 Ryanair Chase to a duel between two of the most prolific equine performers in recent times, but in theory at least there is a clash of epic proportions on the cards.
The prospect of a strong-travelling Cue Card latching on to the heels of a free-wheeling Un De Sceaux as they swing down the hill towards the third-last fence that has been his nemesis in two Gold Cups is electrifying.
Un De Sceaux v Cue Card is a rivalry that has no prequel – and it might never have transpired were it not for the evolution of the old Cathcart Chase into the showpiece it now is.
On the tenth anniversary of its elevation to Grade 1 status, the Ryanair Chase promises a showdown that should render redundant any lingering insecurities about its perception as a consolation race whose existence detracts from the traditional marquee events.
Following Ryanair’s renewed five-year pledge to support the race and an accompanying injection of prize-money, this is the first time that the two-mile-five-furlong contest will take top billing, officially at least, on day three, and Michael O’Leary could hardly have wished for a more captivating script for the occasion.
Our familiarity with Un De Sceaux and Cue Card, two redoubtable old chasers with seasons of thrilling achievement, is the essence of what makes jump racing such a romantic pursuit. This really is something to savour.
Defending champion Un De Sceaux is an indomitable force of nature whose flamboyant, free-going tendencies make for a hair-raising watch. Despite his recalcitrant disposition, he has morphed into the sort of dependable old stager whose enduring reliability seems inconsistent with such evanescent qualities.
That is ultimately a tribute to trainer Willie Mullins, who resisted calls to be more ambitious with Un De Sceaux over hurdles. We are all reaping the benefits now.
Mullins is looking for a third successive win in the race, as Un De Sceaux vies for his ninth at Grade 1 level, having become the first horse to secure three Clarence House Chases with a characteristically dominant performance at Ascot in January.
In three outings at the festival the ten-year-old has won a Racing Post Arkle and a Ryanair and was carried out on his shield when second to Sprinter Sacre in the 2016 Champion Chase. He seeks to add to that glorious legacy here.
Cue Card does not deserve to have his legacy defined by his Gold Cup departures. His dramatic 2016 exit in particular was a painful viewing experience, not least because few horses have captured the public imagination in the way he has.
He has already won nine Grade 1s and completed his preparations with a gallant effort in the Ascot Chase, coming up just short against the emerging force that is Waiting Patiently.
Paddy Brennan was back in the saddle that day, having previously been overlooked at Haydock forthe first time in two years, so this is a bite of the Cheltenham cherry he might not have expected to get. If Cue Card can erase the memories of those cruel Gold Cup spills his redemption will be complete.
Incredibly, eight years have passed since Cue Card pulverised the opposition in the Champion Bumper and five years since his barnstorming success in this race. In 2012 he also chased home Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle.
At 12, maybe he is destined to be vulnerable to a rival with a little less mileage, but both he and Un De Sceaux are heroic warriors who have graced this enchanted amphitheatre with a courage that is impossible to quantify.
Popularity is another intangible that isn't readily measured, but it is hard to deny Cue Card is cherished by racing fans like few others.
If Un De Sceaux still has something to do to bridge the gap between being merely respected and utterly loved, it remains to be seen how conquering such a revered institution would impact the cause.
As such, we might be about to find out what happens when an irresistible force meets an adorable object.
The remaining five Ryanair runners might not be quite as exalted, but they are a remarkably consistent collective. A similar comment applies to the 16-strong field that will convene for the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle.
Jessica Harrington will strive to complete a full house of triumphs in the week’s championship events with Supasundae, who will have to turn the tables on his 2017 Aintree conqueror Yanworth if he is to prevail.
Sam Spinner, such a relentless front-runner, is also in the mix. The find of the season in many ways, the modestly acquired £12,000 purchase represents a rare antidote to the superpowers’ omnipotent influence at the highest level.
With Joe Colliver having bounced back from a stint in prison and Middleham stalwart Jedd O’Keeffe after successfully battling cancer, the human interest strands are especially redolent. Both men have achieved their respective recoveries in pretty emphatic fashion and don't need to win this to validate their journeys.
Still, it would constitute some fairytale finale. It could be that sort of day.
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