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BoyleSports Champion Chase preview

The wonderful Punchestown Festival kicks off today in Ireland, an hour or so south of Dublin. A great event, not quite as chaotic as Cheltenham, but one to put on your list of race meetings to visit at least once.

Today is Champion Chase day and taking the reins for the preview is astute local and blog debutant Daithi MacStiofain, @DaveStevos. You can read more his work on his blog.


BoyleSports Champion Chase
Punchestown, Grade 1
2m Chase, €120,000.
Ground: Good to Yielding
1730 local time, 0230 AEST

A cracking renewal, with ten runners in the field and a case to be made for most of them. The evergreen Sizing Europe is back to defend his crown at the grand old age of 13, in a race he has won two of the last three years. However, there is no shortage of potential challengers to the champion and below is a quick summary of their form and prospects.

Baily Green
A triple Grade 3 Novice Chase winner on deep ground in 2012, including one at Punchestown. However, his form has dipped noticeably this year, and even a repeat of his last run, where he finished second to Gold Bullet, would not suffice in this much stronger race. He has repeatedly come up short at the highest level, and although he managed to grab fourth place in last years race his odds of 40/1 accurately reflect his chances.

Champagne Fever
On his day this horse is a joy to watch. A spectacular jumper with no shortage of pace, if the real Champagne Fever turns up he will make his presence felt. However, his form figures this season read 14F14, and this would seem to suggest that consistency is not his strong suit these days. He was given a very strange ride by Ruby Walsh last time at Aintree, who decided to hold him up rather than race prominently, which I don't think suited at all. He is a better horse than he showed that day, and back down to two miles I think Ruby will go out all guns blazing this time and return to the aggressive tactics that have been so successful in the past. If his jumping holds together he will go close. The best price available at the time of writing is 5/2, which in my opinion is way too short. He was well beaten at last year's festival at 5/4. It is a price based on the reputation of his connections, not on the horse's recent form, so for me he is one to swerve.

Felix Yonger
The second of three runners for Willie Mullins, this horse will be ridden by Danny Mullins. He is a very interesting candidate on the form he has shown this year. He got the better of today's opponent Mallowney in a thriller at Cork by the slimmest of margins, before going on and winning a hurdle race easily at Leopardstown followed by another Grade 2 chase last month at Navan, where he beat the re-opposing Flemenstar out of sight. The worry for me is the trip of two miles. He only barely got up to beat Mallowney over the trip in Cork, and stepped up in trip won easily on his next two runs. He has won over the course and distance before, but that was back in 2013, and I just wonder if he has the speed for a test like this. He will need them to go a good early clip so his stamina comes into play. 7/1 is probably a fair price, and if things fall right it would be no surprise to see this horse rattling home late on and runing into the money.

A triple Grade 1 winner back in 2012/13 before a bad injury interrupted his progress and kept him out of action for almost two years. He made an encouraging enough return to action for new trainer Tony Martin last month at Navan behind Felix Yonger, and Keith Donoghue didn't knock him about and let him finish in his own time. The question has to be whether this horse retains his old ability, and until he shows more on the track he is not a betting proposition and I won't be tempted at his current price of 16/1.

Hidden Cyclone
Another triple Grade 2 winner, he is yet to win at the highest level. Dotted up in a two mile chase here in February on heavy ground, before running a decidedly average race behind Uxizandre at Cheltenham in the Ryanair Chase. He also chased home Twinlight in the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown over 17f in December on heavy ground, beaten by almost five lengths. Back on decent ground today he could easily reverse that form, but the big worry has to be his jumping, which has let him down on too many occasions, including in this race last year when a 10/3 favourite. The 7/2 available at the moment looks a bit skinny to me, and he would only be of interest if he drifts out to an each way price, not a likely scenario if the Shark fancies him!

This horse has been a revelation this year, progressing at a rate of knots. Won a handicap chase at this meeting last year off a mark of 139, and is now rated 162. Ran a cracker in a Grade 2 at Cork, losing out to Felix Yonger despite looking the winner everywhere bar on the line. Found the step up to Grade 1 company too much at Leopardstown over Christmas, when finishing down the field behind Twinlight. However, he won easily on his next two starts, accounting for Bright New Dawn in a strong handicap at Fairyhouse off 148 and followed that up with a facile victory in a Grade 2 at Naas, reversing the Leopardstown form with Twinlight in no uncertain terms. Twinlight came out on top in their next meeting in a tactical three runner race (Savello a well beaten third) on soft ground at Fairyhouse earlier this month. The ground will probably be the liveliest he has faced since going chasing, but it is encouraging that his half brother, Granite Man, did all his winning on a sound surface. Looks attractively priced at 15/2, and definitely worthy of consideration, particularly each way.

Oscar Hill
A rare Irish runner for David Bridgewater. However, rated just 144, and will have to improve massively to take a hand here. Difficult to see him making an impact and his odds of 33/1 reflect that.

Cheltenham festival hero in 2014, when winning the Grand Annual for Tony Martin, and followed that with an excellent run in this race when finishing third behind Sizing Europe. Since then he has been a bit of a disappointment. He could only manage fourth off a mark of 131 behind Katie T in a handicap hurdle in January, after bombing out on his previous run when finishing last behind Twinlight in the Paddy Power at Leopardstown. He was well beaten on his return to Cheltenham behind Dodging Bullets in March, before running a lifeless race behind Mallowney and Twinlight last time out. The return to decent ground might help bring about some improvement, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that this race has been the aim all season, after his good run in it last year. However, on all recent form he is up against it, and he will need to produce a lifetime best to get involved at the business end. Odds of 25/1 a fair reflection of his chances.

Sizing Europe
Now a 13 year old, he is the defending champion. Showed he still had the old spark with a gutsy win over Road To Riches in Gowran on his comeback run back in November. His next two runs were not as good, and his effort at Cheltenham was particularly worrying, given his imperious record at the track. Last year's win came after two of the most fancied horses, Hidden Cyclone and Module, fluffed their lines, and he picked up the pieces. Another year on, and in arguably a stronger race than last year, it is difficult to see the old boy repeating his heroics if all his competitors run to form. A place is probably the best he can hope for, and I'm sure there will be plenty having a sentimental few quid each way on him at the current price of 14/1.

The third of three Willie Mullins entries. Enjoyed his finest hour in the Grade 1 Paddy Power at Leopardstown in December, when accounting for a few of today's rivals. He was ridden by Paul Townend that day, and he keeps the ride today. He is closely matched with the likes of Hidden Cyclone and Mallowney on form, but the big worry for me has got to be the underfoot conditions. He has shown all his best recent form on bottomless ground, and unless there is a downpour overnight it will be decent ground tomorrow. He was a well beaten sixth in the race last year, on good ground, and he has not won on that type of surface since 2011. In fact he has only raced on ground better than soft three times in his career, which suggests that Mr Mullins also believes that soft ground is key for him. He will only be a betting proposition for me if the rain comes, and if it does the 6/1 currently available is a good price.

This race revolves around one horse, and that is Champagne Fever. If he turns up at the peak of his powers he could absolutely demolish this field. However, given his inconsistent form this season I am willing to take him on. I am hoping Ruby goes forward on him and ensures it is a truly run race. If this happens the emphasis will be on stamina rather than speed, and the two horses that should suit best are Felix Yonger and Mallowney. Preference is for the latter, as his pedigree suggests he should relish decent ground and I think he has every chance of reversing that Cork form with Felix Yonger, who will be finishing strongly. If there is a deluge overnight it will bring Twinlight into the reckoning, but if it stays dry I think Savello might be the one to come home in third. Hidden Cyclone is just too unreliable a jumper for me, and I think olkd Father Time has finally caught up with Sizing Europe.

1. Mallowney
2. Felix Yonger
3. Savello


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