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Cheltenham Festival: Three winners in Queen Mother Champion Chase

By Richard Forristal

A rare clash between three previous holders of the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase crown makes for an absolutely fascinating showpiece on day two of the Cheltenham Festival.

Sizing Europe is tackling the £350,000 Grade One for a fifth time as he makes his seventh appearance at the March gala at the age of 13.

Henry de Bromhead's redoubtable 2011 hero has an astounding capacity to defy expectations, rolling down the hill here in the past like a horse half his age.

He ultimately came up short behind Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy on both occasions, yet he bagged his eighth Grade One at Punchestown last spring and thwarted the leading Gold Cup fancy Road To Riches only last October at Gowran Park.

He has been some servant and he ought to give his excellent 19-year-old pilot Jonathan Burke some spin.

Indeed, Sizing Europe might even have played an unwitting part in Sprinter Sacre's fall from grace.

At Punchestown two years ago, he pushed a horse widely acknowledged as one of the most talented two-milers in the history of the sport to the pin of his collar.

While nobody can say for sure, there is an obvious chronological link between that gruelling encounter and Sprinter Sacre's subsequent problems.

Nicky Henderson's nine-year-old didn't respond when Barry Geraghty took him off the bridle on his reappearance at Ascot.

Connections are adamant that he is in a good place now, but this is the most unforgiving environment imaginable. He will need to be up for the fight.

Sire De Grugy is the reigning champion. The Moore family's pride and joy hasn't always got the credit he deserves, but he has returned to form in the nick of time.

Dodging Bullets is this year's Sire De Grugy, while Champagne Fever is a bit of an enigma.

We thought he'd win the Arkle last year, but he didn't. We thought he'd stay three miles, but he doesn't.

We thought his jumping was bomb-proof, but he fell at Thurles. We thought he went well fresh, but this is his third race in two months. There's little we know, really.

The same cannot be said of Willie Mullins, and if he and Ruby Walsh conspire to get the gangly grey to belatedly secure his third Festival success, it will be some feat.

1.30pm Grade One Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle 2m 5f: Nichols Canyon is a dual Grade One winner whose only reversal in four hurdle races came when he unseated Walsh over Christmas.

He would appreciate if the rain came early, but the manner of his victories suggest that he is a horse with oodles of class. Stamina shouldn't be an issue.

His stablemate Outlander left behind a Limerick defeat to Martello Tower to turn the tables on the same horse when dropped back to this trip at Leopardstown, with Windsor Park and No More Heroes also behind. That is fair form, and he won't mind any rain that falls.

Selection: Nichols Canyon (Nap) looks a pretty solid favourite

2.05pm Grade One RSA Chase 3m 1f: Don Poli has progressed steadily since winning the conditional jockeys' race 12 months ago.

He was a ready winner on his fencing debut before toppling Apache Stronghold over this trip in a Leopardstown Grade One in late December. That form has been franked spectacularly, so he has a lot of pluses, with the lack of a recent outing the chief negative.

Apache Jack, Adriana Des Mottes and Wounded Warrior are fair sorts without having shown they will be good enough for this.

Selection: Don Poli (nb) has ticks in all the right boxes

2.40pm Grade Three Coral Cup (Handicap Hurdle) 2m 5f: Tony Martin's Blackmail is interesting on his handicap debut. He ran a tidy race when returning from a lay-off at Leopardstown over Christmas and will strip fitter now.

His stablemate Marinero is in off a lovely weight. Third to Douvan in January, he ought to relish some nice ground.

Un Atout is potentially well treated. Last seen over flights winning a Punchestown Grade One two years ago, he hasn't fired over fences this term but is no forlorn hope.

Selection: At the weights, Marinero should give you a run for your money

3.20pm Grade One Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase 2m: Sire De Grugy left behind a worrying reappearance to stamp his authority all over a Chepstow handicap.

This will be his third race in just over a month and it will be a far more rigorous examination, but it is possible that new plastic shoes fitted for Chepstow have solved a foot problem.

He was by far the best in this division last season. Prior to that, Sprinter Sacre set the benchmark so high that he seemed sure to dominate for a long time. It is nearly two years since we saw him at his best. Any kinks will be fully uncovered here.

Dodging Bullets has been a revelation, knuckling down to draw clear of Sprinter Sacre to win his second Grade One, having landed the Tingle Creek previously. That would normally be sufficient to see him start favourite here, but he remains unfashionable.

While Mr Mole is a similar sort, he looks as if he might have reached the limit of his ability. Champagne Fever is hard to get a handle on.

Of the others, the venerable Sizing Europe is hard to fancy at this stage but he will doubtless show up for a long way once again.

Selection: Sire De Grugy is the most appealing

4.00pm Glenfarclas Cross-country Handicap Chase 3m 7f: Plenty of familiar faces but little quality, as is the norm for this race.

While Quantitativeeasing ran well here in December, he never figured in this 12 months ago, so the faster pace may not suit him. Any Currency beat him in December and was second in this in 2014. He has a lot of weight to carry but this is his forte.

Duke Of Lucca, Chicago Grey, Uncle Junior and Sire Collonges are others that know their way around here.

Selection: Any Currency is a tentative choice

4.40pm Grade Three Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle 2m 1f: Hostile Fire is an eye-catcher. Second to fair sorts on his first two hurdle outings, he won nicely at Fairyhouse last time.

Gordon Elliott tends to target this race and this fellow is a likely type, as is stablemate Thunder Zone.

He has been placed behind Dicosimo and Kitten Rock, which is not to be sniffed at in the context of today's opposition.

Selection: Hostile Fire is worth a look

5.15 Grade One Weatherbys Champion Bumper 2m 1f: Moon Racer could be the best of the local contingent, although it's difficult to view his absence since scooting up here in October as anything other than a negative.

Willie Mullins' septet are difficult to rank. Stone Hard is a gorgeous horse that has filled the eye in his two bumper wins, but he hasn't beaten much in those races.

A similar comment applies to his fellow son of Robin Des Champs, Au Quart De Tour.

The form of his Fairyhouse rout is better, likewise that of Bordini's Listed win at Navan. Vigil beat Bellshill at Leopardstown over Christmas but he wasn't good enough 12 months ago.

Jetstream Jack is live outsider. He beat Anibale Fly with some authority on his Fairyhouse debut in January. The runner-up's subsequent facile Fairyhouse triumph is a resounding recommendation.

Selection: Jetstream Jack has a real chance at fancy odds.

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