ONE of the best horses in recent times, will Sprinter Sacre regain his Champion Chase crown on Wednesday? Yes, says Graeme Johnston (@GraemeJ_83). No, says Chris Graham (@chrisgraham79).
Champion Chase | Wednesday 15:20
Sprinter Sacre to win? – YES says Graeme Johnston
The Champion Chase is my favourite race at the Festival. I love two mile chasers, and with Azertyuiop, Moscow Flyer, Master Minded and Sizing Europe amongst recent winners, the Champion Chase has provided some of the genuine Cheltenham greats.
However, in my opinion the greatest horse to have won the race is Sprinter Sacre. His performance in the 2013 race was nothing short of astonishing. He then matched Istabraq's record of winning at Aintree and Punchestown festivals, beating Ryanair winner Cue Card in the Melling Chase just to show both his versatility and complete dominance.
Sadly a heart problem uncovered when pulled up on his seasonal reappearance robbed us of Sprinter in his prime, allowing Sire Du Grugy to take advantage and mop up the two mile chase scene, culminating in a deserved victory in the Queen Mother.
Sprinter Sacre is now back, and his reappearance in the Clarence House Chase finishing second to Dodging Bullets was full of positives. Not 100%, he travelled into the lead before tiring close home in soft ground. There isn't a doubt in my mind that Sprinter Sacre will have improved massively for this outing, and with Nicky Henderson issuing positive updates about his recent work he looks primed to regain his crown.
We're not currently blessed with a vintage crop of two mile chasers, and even if Sprinter Sacre is back to 90% of his former self, Barry Geraghty will be jumping the last still waiting to take the hand brake off.
Maybe I'm just convincing myself that he will regain his crown on Wednesday, or maybe he is just a cut above his opposition, either way the only horse I am backing in the race is the monster that is Sprinter Sacre.
Sprinter Sacre to win? – NO says Chris Graham
Horse racing is a brutal sport. Sometimes it can stop the toughest beasts in their track. Illness and injury attacked the great Sprinter Sacre and I'm certain they will have left their mark.
This wonderful horse made us all gasp in the 2011/12 and 2012/13 seasons by producing some of the best performances we've ever seen. At the Cheltenham Festival of 2013 he won the Champion Chase by 19 lengths in one of the all-time great Festival performances. Two years on, he returns on Wednesday looking to reclaim his crown. Sadly, I cannot back him.
The Nicky Henderson trained horse has run just twice in the intervening period. The first of those runs saw his empire start to crumble as he was pulled up at Kempton just after Christmas 2013. Subsequent tests showed he had a heart defect and he would be put on the easy list.
Initially he was expected to return a few months later in time for the Festival but he didn't make it. In fact, after a few more delays, it was over a year till he returned to the racecourse this January in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot. He went off odds on that day, yet finished a three length second to Dodging Bullets. No disgrace, but no triumph.
The abiding image that will never leave me is the face of Nicky Henderson immediately after the race. He looked gutted, despite what he said to the press a few minutes later.
I really feel that he goes to the Festival in hope rather than expectation. The Champion Chase is a tough tough race that takes no prisoners, and after what this horse has gone through in the last couple of years I think it's a huge ask for him to come back from that to win here.
History backs me up. For a start, it's incredibly hard for a horse to regain a championship race after relinquishing it. It's happened just once in nearly 100 years in the Gold Cup and in Sprinter's race it's occurred just once in 40 years.
On top of that, I think this is quite a competitive Champion Chase. Not a vintage one, but intriguing all the same. Dodging Bullets has done nothing wrong all season and looks to be getting better with every run, while the defending champion Sire De Grugy was simply breathtaking two weeks ago at Chepstow. And let's not forget the ultra-talented Champagne Fever and dark horse Mr Mole.
No, I'm sorry, I just can't be with Sprinter Sacre on Wednesday. The idealist in me would love to see him win again, but the pragmatist knows that just won't happen.
If Sprinter Sacre finishes in the first two in Wednesday's Champion Chase race, Ladbrokes will refund ALL losing bets on that race.