John Doyle continues his look ahead to the Cheltenham Festival, previewing the Ryanair Chase
The 2018 Ryanair Chase looks one of the most competitive races at the Festival. This relatively new race has gained greater significance over the last few seasons and it is now established as a really strong Championship race.
The race attracts horses not quite fast enough for the Champion Chase and not quite enough stamina for the Gold Cup. Last season, Un De Sceaux ran out a very easy winner.
He jumped extravagantly throughout and had enough energy to see the race out. He is a real winning machine, but his best form is on soft ground.
The ground at the Festival was soft last year which is not always the case. This horse needs a softer surface to perform to his best, so it is hard to be confident that he will be as strong a contender on a better surface. He is an opposable favourite at this stage.
Fox Norton is a really interesting contender here. Last season he just failed to land the Champion Chase before going on to win at Aintree and Punchestown. On those occasions, he showed real class and battling qualities.
This season, after an easy win in the Schloer Chase at Cheltenham, he suffered from a poor ride to lose out in the Tingle Creek before running over three miles in the King George, a trip that proved to stretch his stamina too far.
Colin Tizzard (pictured above with jockey Robert Power), has given him plenty of time to recover from that exertion and he will now build towards the Ryanair, where he will have as first-rate a chance as any horse in the field.
Last season, the JLT Novice Chase proved an exciting race with Yorkhill coming out on top with Top Notch close behind. Yorkhill is an incredibly hyped horse who goes exceptionally well left handed. He jumped well in the JLT and despite idling, pulled out enough to win.
This season, he didn’t seem to stay in the three Mile Christmas Chase at Leopardstown, so he could end up in this race but equally could run over Hurdles. If he turns up here, he will have a great chance.
Top Notch has returned this season like an improved performer. He destroyed a strong handicap field at Ascot at the end of November before following up in the Peterborough Chase.
The horses behind him have boosted the form, so he is another strong contender for the Nicky Henderson stable. Waiting Patiently is unbeaten over fences in five starts.
In each of those races, he has travelled well and quickened up to win his race impressively. Last season, he brushed Politologue aside easily at Haydock and that horse has gone on to Grade 1 glory.
This season he has been equally progressive winning both his races. The big negative for this race is that he will not run without the ground being soft, something his trainer has stated a few times. That being the case, it is hard to strongly fancy him.
Other members of the Willie Mullins team to consider are Min and Djakadam. Min has the potential to be better over this trip and could run here if some of the other Mullins stars, especially Douvan, run in the Champion Chase.
Min is a good jumper and the slightly slower pace here could see him get into a good rhythm and be a big contender.
Djakadam has run well in the last three Gold Cups, but has been found wanting on the run home. This season, his form has been poor but he could be worth a go in this race.
Frodon, from the Paul Nicholls stable, jumped really well over the course to win a handicap off Top weight on Trials day. His form is relatively strong and his liking for the course gives him a chance but he will need to improve.
There are so many scenarios that can happen in this race, but the one that stands out at this stage is Fox Norton.
This horse is ideal for the distance and he is adaptable on any type of ground. Last season, he flourished on the spring ground, running and winning major races.
A change of ground to soft would see the complexion of the race change with Waiting Patiently coming right into the reckoning.
This will be a race to savour.