Mullins looking to Chacun to end his Champion Chase wait
Chacun Pour Soi faces a critical Cheltenham mission as he bids to complete master trainer Willie Mullins’ full set of Festival titles in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
The short-priced favourite will be joined by stablemate Cilaos Emery against eight other heavyweight contenders on Wednesday.
But there is no doubt the hopes of Closutton will be centred chiefly on Chacun Pour Soi to deliver the one Cheltenham championship event that has as yet eluded the Festival’s all-time most successful trainer.
Among his record-breaking tally of victories, at the start of business this week Mullins could count two Gold Cups – after Al Boum Photo conquered that Everest for him in each of the last two years – four Champion Hurdles, two Stayers’ crowns and three Ryanair Chase successes.
He has suffered only disappointment, though, in the top two-mile chasing division – including with his brilliant but fragile favourite Douvan in 2017 and 12 months ago when Chacun Pour Soi had to miss the race because of a last-minute stone bruise.
Since then, the lightly-raced nine-year-old has been imperious in three dominant victories on home soil against the best of his compatriots.
At the prospect of winning the great race for the first time, Mullins said: “It would be huge for the stable and everyone here to get that win and have all the championship races at the Cheltenham Festival.
“I hope he will give us a chance to try to put that away. He’s in great form since Leopardstown (in last month’s Dublin Chase) and does everything right at home, so fingers crossed.”
Mullins is not inclined to dwell on last year’s mishap – and neither was he at the time, because there were a string of other major races he needed to concentrate on.
He added: “It hurts – but at Cheltenham, every 35 minutes it’s a new page, and you don’t really get to think about it or for it to sink in.
“Thankfully we had a good Cheltenham last year – so it’s history.
“It’s different if you had one horse – you would probably wallow in it – but as I said to the lads ‘just put it behind us and get on to the next race’.”
Chacun Pour Soi, who will be ridden by Paul Townend for owner Rich Ricci, developed a reputation for susceptibility to injury as well as brilliance on the track as he managed just four appearances in his first two campaigns for Mullins.
There has been no sign of any problems this season, however, and Mullins understandably has high hopes he can rise to his biggest challenge yet on his first attempt at Cheltenham.
He said: “He had his troubles early on in his career – but now everything has settled down, he just goes up the gallop every morning and does his work.
“He is one of the ones if you had to pick the top five or six travelling over, you’d say he is one that you are really hoping can bring his ‘A’ game there.”
He faces a clutch of top-class contenders – even in the absence of dual winner Altior, pulled out of the race for the second year running because of a late setback.
The challengers are headed by Paul Nicholls’ title-holder Politologue and Dan Skelton’s Nube Negra.
Festival stalwart Politologue had already finished fourth and second to Altior in the previous two Queen Mothers when he won emphatically last year.
The grey – who will be running at the meeting for the sixth time – started this season with a Tingle Creek triumph at Sandown, before finishing second to the vastly-improved and reopposing First Flow at Ascot in January.
“I think it was a good run in the Clarence House,” Nicholls said of Politologue’s most recent effort.
“The ground was probably testing enough for him that day, and he might be slightly better on spring ground – which is why Cheltenham suits him very well.
“He always gives his all. There was no excuse at Ascot – he got beaten by a better horse on the day. (But) he still ran to a very high level, which he’ll do in this race.
“He’s solid and jumps well and will give you a good run for your money.
“Being realistic, we’ve got a nice chance, but it will be hard.”
Kim Bailey’s First Flow is unbeaten in his last six races, during which he has risen 25lb – often showing a liking for very soft ground.
His Cotswolds trainer reports jockey David Bass has great faith in his ability to compete at this highest level.
“David totally believes in the horse, and we both know that the horse stays well,” said Bailey.
“We’ve been arguing all season whether we ought to be running over two and a half miles rather than two, but David has been adamant two miles is the right trip – and he’s proved himself right so far.
“He probably just goes through soft ground better than everybody else. I think his last performance probably gave the horse confidence and the jockey confidence that he can handle better ground better than we thought.”
Nube Negra has run just once this season – but that is by design, and his surprise Kempton victory over Altior at Christmas was a revelation.
Skelton said: “We come here fresh and well. He had a little gallop round Warwick three weeks ago, and I was happy with how that went.
“Nice ground will suit him, and we’re just really looking forward to it.”
Henry de Bromhead supplies two more Irish hopefuls, last year’s Arkle favourite and winner respectively, Notebook and Put The Kettle On.
He said of the former: “The first year he ran (at Cheltenham), he ran in the Ballymore, and he’s never looked as good over a trip as he has since we dropped him back to two miles.
“Last year, yes, he was disappointing – having set off favourite.
“He’s coming here off the back of one less run than last year, so hopefully that will stand to him. He’s a bit fresher, and I would say the better the ground, the better his chance.”
While Notebook fluffed his Festival lines, finishing sixth and last, stablemate Put The Kettle On emphatically did not – at 16-1.
The mare won again at Cheltenham in November, before having to settle for third behind Chacun Pour Soi – and Notebook – at Leopardstown a month later.
De Bromhead said: “She was brilliant in the Shloer obviously, and then she ran very well at Leopardstown.
“We were planning to go to Kempton – but obviously with Covid we weren’t allowed to travel, so we were never convinced Leopardstown was going to be ideal for her. But she still ran really well.
“As we all know, she just loves Cheltenham, so hopefully that’ll improve her a couple of pounds as well.”
The remainder of the 10-strong field features Harry Whittington’s Rouge Vif, third in last year’s Arkle, the admirable Sceau Royal for Alan King and Nicholls’ second-string Greaneteen.
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