20 Jan Somewhere for the weekend
Eight runners are set to go to post this Saturday in the Grade One Victor Chandler Chase, which has been monopolised by Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls in recent years. In the tragic absence of both Twist Magic and Master Minded, Nicholls will this year rely on promising novice Al Ferof to fly the flag for Team Ditcheat, although he looks to have a tough task on his hands at level weights.
The Victor Chandler Chase is traditionally one of the best races to be run in January, along with the Irish Champion Hurdle, and it is often used as a final stepping stone for those wishing to contest the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March. It is registered as the Clarence House Chase and is run over two miles and one furlong, which means that it places an emphasis on brute speed, as well as jumping. With that in mind, it is no surprise that the last five winners of the race were all French breds, which is often where the speediest steeple-chasers learn their trade.
Bookmakers have put in Nicky Henderson’s Finian’s Rainbow as the favourite to win the race, a nine-year-old bay gelding who has won five of his last six races and also has a win to his name at Ascot in a novice hurdle. ‘Finian’s’ is the 15/8 favourite for the race with Coral, coming from a stable that has won the Victor Chandler three times. He was fancied for the Arkle Chase last season, but could only manage second behind Captain Chris, although he did finish the season on a high with a win over Ghizao at the Aintree Festival.
Finian’s Rainbow had to miss the Tingle Creek through a set-back and only returned to action in late December, where he threatened to get turned over at 4/11. No doubt he will have improved for the run, but he still finished just two lengths in front of Oiseau De Nuit, whose jockey was not allowed to claim his usual 7lb because it was a graded race. For a horse that has been beaten in the previous two Cheltenham Festivals, 6/1 that he wins the Queen Mother Champion Chase is probably a bit skinny, although there is not much strength in depth to the two-mile chasing division this year, especially after Master Minded picked up a nasty injury on Boxing Day. He is also quoted at 50/1 with Sky Bet to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, for which he holds an entry, or 33/1 with bet365 who are ‘non-runner, no bet’ on the championship races.
The second favourite is the novice Al Ferof, who is at 3/1 with Sporting Bet and Bodog. The grey flew home to win the Supreme Novices’ at 10/1 last March, and is being aimed at the Arkle Chase, for which he is 7/1 with Ladbrokes. The son of Dom Alco will once again be ridden by Ruby Walsh who has a record with the seven-year-old that reads: 12111. Obviously it is a massive task to try and upstage some of the seasoned campaigners, but given the prize-money on offer at Ascot and that both Big Zeb and Sizing Europe are staying at home in Ireland, he is entitled to take his chance against a rather mediocre bunch.
Al Ferof last beat For Non Stop, who has let down the Sandown form at Newbury behind Cue Card, but at least punters know that he copes with fences. Connections are hoping that in time he becomes a Gold Cup horse.
Third in the betting is Wishfull Thinking, who is into 6/1 from 13/2 with Paddy Power today. He has won four of his 10 starts over fences, but is without a win this season, although jockey Richard Johnson reports him to be in better form at home. If he is held up on Saturday, there is no reason why he can not finish in the first three to book his ticket for Cheltenham. The son of Irish sire Alflora is Tom Segal’s selection to win the Champion Chase, and he is available at 12/1 with William Hill for the ‘Queen Mother’.
Somersby is another contender for a place at 13/2 with Stan James and Coral. He rarely wins, but he ran well in this race last year behind Master Minded, as he should not be too inconvenienced with a drop in trip after finishing fourth in the King George over three miles. At eight-years-old he still has time on his side, and this time his trainer has decided to get rid of the tongue tie in favour of cheek pieces, which she decided to apply to Loch Ba on Boxing Day.
Gauvain has been a star with Nick Williams since moving from the Charlie Mann yard, and is at 9/1 with bet365.
Famous for all the wrong reasons is Forpadytheplasterer, who comes from Ireland and is 14/1 with Ladbrokes. He is without a win since March 2009.
The field for the Victor Chandler Chase is completed by Oiseau De Nuit and I’m So Lucky, who are both at 40/1.