Altior. Unbeaten. World record holder. The greatest I’ve ever seen…

…The three-miler?

And there lies the crux of the issue regarding the two-mile chase division. The target for Altior, in the short term at least, is the King George, a first attempt at three miles.

Following Altior’s 19th consecutive victory when romping away with the Celebration Chase, Nicky Henderson admitted that he felt the horse was “telling him” that a step up in trip was the route to take next season, but personally, I wouldn’t be in the same camp as the Seven Barrows maestro.

Would Altior drop back down to two-miles after tackling three at Kempton?

Surely they won’t run him in a Ryanair; for all that Cheltenham love to market it as a fifth Championship race, it’s got a long way to go to either match the prestige or quality of the Champion Chase or the Gold Cup, and Henderson himself has said “there’s not much point doing it to go the Ryanair.”

But the Gold Cup, on paper, appears to be a much deeper race this time around, over a trip more than two furlongs further than Altior has ever faced before.

I don’t doubt that Altior’s perfect trip would now ideally be over further than two miles, but even with that, he is still clearly the best two-miler around at the minute. Given how strong the staying chase division certain to be the best

It’s absolutely insane that Altior is a four-time Grade One winner at the Festival and I’m still not particularly convinced that he likes the place; certainly the only times in his career where he has looked slightly vulnerable all came at Prestbury Park, but it speaks volumes for his talent and attitude that he has always come out on top when placed into a spot of bother.

The reigning champ is a best priced 4-1 to make it three Champion Chases in a row, though if the crosshairs were fixed on this target, he’d surely be even money. “Slower” he may be, but he’s still the best around- and the one they all have to improve beyond.

THE CHALLENGERS

The discussion surrounding all of these is somewhat immaterial if Altior goes for his third Champion Chase, because, as good as Min (12s), Sceau Royal (16s) and Politologue (25s) are- all bona-fide Grade One two-milers- we know that they just aren’t as good as Altior.

Politologue and Sceau Royal filled the placings behind Altior in the Champion Chase last season. If pushed for likelier winner of the pair, I’d be keener on Sceau Royal, who looked Altior’s chief threat three furlongs out in the 2018 renewal and also ran creditably when runner up in the Celebration Chase.

He probably has a little bit more room for improvement than Politologue, who may now be at his best over an intermediate distance and would need a strongly run race to be seen to best effect over two miles.

I’m also on the fence about as to how good a season Min had last year- his Melling Chase victory was breathtaking and showed exactly what he is capable of when everything goes right for him and he was also exceptional in the Dublin Chase, his position as Altior’s chief market rival in the Champion Chase was fully justified.

Nevertheless, the ride he was given at Cheltenham didn’t play to his strengths and it was arguably a below par effort when beaten by 11yo Un De Sceaux at Punchestown, although it’s fair to point out that that race came in Un De Sceaux’s optimum conditions.

Again, though, he’s 3-0 down when facing Altior and the only way Min wins the Champion Chase is if Altior goes elsewhere.

Footpad (25s) is also going to get a quick mention. This time last year some pundits were thinking about him as being the horse to beat Altior, though his first season outside of his flawless novice year proved to be an utter disaster.

He’s still only seven, and though he’ll go into the new season with more than one point to prove, if he returns to his peak at any point he shouldn’t be light years away from the best around.

THE NEW FACES

Last season’s two-mile novice chasing division took blow after blow after blow; every time a potential top class candidate emerged, they were cruelly snatched away from potential Arkle glory by injury. Or they were called Lalor.

Up until his setback, the leading novice in Ireland last season was undoubtedly Le Richebourg (20-1), whilst Dynamite Dollars (33-1) had a claim for being the best in Britain.

Neither were spectacular hurdlers, but both showed marked improvement when faced with the bigger obstacles last season and it’s fair to say we haven’t yet seen the ceiling of either’s ability.

Le Richebourg won four out of his five chases last season, his only defeat coming over 2m4f when outstayed by Gold Cup contender Delta Work. Admittedly, he will need to take another step forward from beating Us And Them and Mengli Khan, but with most of the established top two-milers on the other side of Irish Sea, it’s not hard to envisage Le Richebourg picking up a couple of Graded races en route to a crack at the Championship.

Dynamite Dollars’ achievements probably notched a level below Le Richebourg’s last season, but he merits his place in this write-up. Like Le Richebourg, he was four out of five prior to being sidelined and claimed the scalps of Lalor and Kalashnikov in victories at Sandown and Kempton.

In retrospect, those victories might not have been worth as much as they first appeared at the time and needs to improve massively again this year to be considered a realistic Championship contender.

In their absence, it was Duc Des Genievres (12s) who took advantage, coming home clear in what surely was the worst Arkle of recent times. Duc Des Genievres won very easily that day, but was seemingly found out in a more up-to-standard Grade One at the Punchestown Festival and his record of 2-5 over fences, with two of those defeats being in beginners’ chases, makes me think he could be being vastly overrated by the market; he was no match for either Defi Du Seuil or Chacun Pour Soi at Punchestown and I’d actually wager that he’ll be sent off a bigger price on the day than he already is now.

If his limitations are when I think they are, he could be exposed as not up to this level well before the Festival- though I was wrong about him going into last season’s Festival and I’m happy enough for him to prove me wrong again.

Defi Du Seuil (10s) himself has options other than this; he was primarily campaigned over further than two miles last season, although dropped back to the minimum for his final start last season and certainly showed that he’s still a very classy operator over the minimum trip.

From a racing fan’s point of view, it was great to see Philip Hobbs’ star confirm the promise he’d shown when Champion Juvenile in 16/17 after having a difficult second season hurdling.

His superior turn of foot helped him to beat Gold Cup contender Lostintranslation, with whom he won his season long running battle 2-1, and took him close to a third Grade One of the season at the Punchestown Festival.

If his campaign is geared around a tilt at the two-mile crown, I certainly wouldn’t be quick to rule him out of being able to make his mark felt at the top level- though whether he’s quite as effective over this short a trip is something that will hopefully become more apparent as the season goes on.

At Punchestown though, it was the lightly raced Chacun Pour Soi (7s) who came along to throw another end-of-season spanner in the works.

The 7yo only made his debut for Willie Mullins in a beginners’ chase at Naas on the Sunday before Cheltenham, but came with a tall reputation, one which he was certainly asked to put on the line at the Punchestown Festival against possibly the strongest field of two-mile novices assembled season, including the two aforementioned Cheltenham G1 winners as well as Ornua, who took the Maghull at Aintree.

Chacun Pour Soi tanked his way through the race and looked far from the finished article, his inexperience certainly showing at a couple of fences, but shot himself to the top of the novice tree with that victory, and with the expected natural progression to come, he’s clearly one of the likelier candidates to take the crown if Altior’s future lies over further.

Coincidentally, the only horse I backed ante-post for a Festival novice chase last season also didn’t end up making it to Cheltenham. Cilaos Emery (20s) hasn’t had much racing, only one start since 2017, in fact, but it was a winning one.

I’m hugely excited to see how he gets on this season, though it would certainly need a huge leap of faith in order to back him for the Championship after a single chase start. I thought he’d win the Arkle last season, though, and I couldn’t exclude him from this preview because, especially if all is well following yet another injury.

We’ve clearly not quite seen the best of Cilaos Emery yet, but what we have seen so far has been very promising indeed and I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing a full campaign from Willie Mullins’ charge.