It’s Wishfull Thinking to try and find something that will stop Sprinter Sacre

BILL ESDAILE PREVIEWS THE CHAMPION CHASE AND CORAL CUP

THE Queen Mother Champion Chase roll of honour over the last decade includes the likes of Moscow Flyer and Master Minded, but SPRINTER SACRE has the potential to leave that lot for dust in terms of sheer brilliance.

Nicky Henderson promised us the seven-year-old would make a better chaser when weakness beat him in the Supreme Novices’ at the Festival a couple of years ago, and he’s been proved spot on. ‘The Black Aeroplane’ has simply toyed with his rivals over the bigger obstacles to date and is unbeaten in all seven races.

He followed up a 24-length chasing debut win at Doncaster with the 16-length annihilation of Peddlers Cross at Kempton. Next came a six-length win in the Game Spirit, and then breathtaking victories in both the Racing Post Arkle and the Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree. He’s carried on where he left off last season and has won his three starts so far this term by a cool aggregate of 42 lengths.

Only six runners line up against him this afternoon in the Sportingbet Queen Mother Champion Chase (3.20pm) and he looks sure to become the shortest-priced Cheltenham Festival winner since Arkle. He is a best-priced 2/7 with Paddy Power and, if you’re looking for a bit of insurance, hats off to Star Sports who are refunding bets if he falls to a maximum of £5000.

The market suggests that he has most to fear from former winner and last year’s runner-up Sizing Europe. But the 11-year-old doesn’t seem to have the speed he once had and can’t possibly trouble the favourite. Tom George saddles interesting French recruit Mail De Bievre. My concern is that his aggressive running style means he could easily fall in a hole.

If you’re looking to have a bet in the ‘without Sprinter Sacre’ market, then I’m going to tentatively suggest one on Wishfull Thinking at 6/1 with Paddy Power. The key to finishing runner-up in a race like this is whether you are ridden aggressively to beat Sprinter Sacre and win the race, or whether you are nursed round for a share of the place money.

Both Sizing Europe and Mail De Bievre will eyeball the Champion elect and may pay the price for doing so up the famous Cheltenham hill. Meanwhile, I expect Richard Johnson to switch Wishfull Thinking off at the back of the pack and weave his way through for a podium finish.

As for the winning margin, I certainly wouldn’t put anyone off buying Sporting Index’s Sprinter Sacre winning distance margin at 5.5 lengths. He is so much better than his opposition and there is no chance of Barry Geraghty applying the handbreak.

Those of you who cannot resist backing Sprinter Sacre, I suggest you take the promotional £20 on offer at evens with Coral. They say that there are no such things in life as a certainty, but he may well be the closest thing to it.

In contrast, finding the winner of the 28-runner Coral Cup (4.00pm) is no easy task. Once upon a time it paid to concentrate on the older, more seasoned types, but it’s worth noting that six of the last eight winners have been second season hurdlers.

For that reason I’m going to side with one from each category. To start with I cannot ignore the claims of Willie Mullins’ FIVEFORTHREE, even though he hasn’t seen a racecourse for 727 days.

The 11-year-old is thrown in on the best of his old form, which includes a win in the Neptune on this very card back in 2008. He has to be backed each-way at 14/1 with Coral, especially as they’re offering five places on the race.

He defied nearly two years off the racecourse to win at Punchestown in February 2011, and there is no getting away from the fact that trainers can ready their horses without a run far easier these days.

Mullins has a wealth of talent in the staying hurdling division. He will know exactly where he stands with this fellow as he’s bound to have worked with the likes of So Young, Zaidpour and Thousand Stars to name just three. The trainer also saddles the interesting Abbey Lane, set to be ridden by Ruby Walsh, and he is another that warrants respect.

As for second season hurdlers, they don’t come more talented than the Nicky Henderson-trained CASH AND GO, who has been dropped another pound in the weights after a decent showing in the Betfair Hurdle.

He shaped like a horse who would relish the step up to this 2m5f trip that day, and he looks over-priced at 14/1 with several firms. Barry Geraghty stays loyal to the former Irish-trained Grade One winning hurdler. Together they should go well.

■ Pointers…
SPRINTER SACRE (buy winning distance at 5.5 lengths) 3.20pm Cheltenham
WISHFULL THINKING (w/o Sprinter Sacre) 3.20pm Cheltenham
FIVEFORTHREE e/w 4.00pm Cheltenham
CASH AND GO e/w 4.00pm Cheltenham