The Grade One Ryanair Chase is one of the highlights of the Festival and is run on the New Course over two and a half-miles.
Whilst not identified as one of the four big races at the meeting, a number of classy performers have won this event including Our Vic, Imperial Commander, dual-winner Albertas Run, Cue Card and Uxizandre who in 2015, gave Sir Anthony McCoy his last Cheltenham Festival winner.
This looks a decent renewal but if Cheltenham does get some rain and the going description has soft in it, I would be very keen on Un De Sceaux's chances in the contest at 7/2 with BetVictor. Willie Mullins' Denham Red gelding has largely raced over shorter distances in his career thus far and was second to Sprinter Sacre in last year's Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Festival. With Mullins' Douvan emerging as the Closutton handler's Champion Chase prospect this year, Un De Sceaux goes for the Ryanair, for which I think he will enjoy the extra yardage.
In what has been a decent season for Edward O'Connell's gelding so far this term, the nine-year-old was a game winner of the Tingle Creek at Sandown in December, before putting up one of his most memorable and spectacular performances in the rescheduled Clarence House Chase at Cheltenham on Festival Trials Day.
Both those races were over two-miles and thus questions have been raised around the gelding's stamina credentials and whether he can see out the two and a half-mile trip. However, Un De Sceaux won the Prix Le Barka at Auteuil on very soft ground by eight lengths in May last year and with Mullins also suggesting in recent days, that the gelding will not be inconvenienced by the step-up in trip, he has to run a mighty race.
The only obvious major worry with Un De Sceaux is good or firmer ground as all of his best form has been with softer conditions underfoot. If the ground is good at the Festival, that would therefore be a major worry but I'm keen to stick with him and will be delighted if the ground is soft. At 7/2 he looks a decent bet.
At a slightly bigger price, I'm also keen to have a saver on Empire Of Dirt at 5/1 with BetVictor. The Irish-bred gelding has rapidly improved over fences in recent times and was successful at the Festival last year when scoring decisively by four-lengths in the ultra competitive Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Grade Three handicap, in which he was by the best horses, coming well clear of his rivals on the run-in.
Elliott's charge returned to action this term with a four-length victory at Navan in the Troytown Chase in November before running a career best to finish a three-quarter length second to Sizing John in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month, in which the gelding made up significantly late ground to finish behind Sizing John. He will appreciate the drop back down to two and a half-miles if connections decide to head for this race over the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup and he looks sure to run a mighty race.
Other dangers include Uxizandre, an impressive winner of this race in 2015 and who returned from a long layoff to run a great race behind Un De Sceaux in the Clarence House Chase last time and Josses Hill, a decent winner of the Grade Two Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon in December before finishing a seven-length last of five to Thistlecrack in the King George VI Chase later that month.
However, Un De Sceaux and Empire Of Dirt could prove a cut above their rivals and I expect them both to go well.
Selections (Scale of 1-5 Points)
Un De Sceaux 4pts Win - 7/2 at BetVictor
Empire Of Dirt 1pt E/W - 5/1 at BetVictor
Words By: Danny Archer