Saturday’s Betfair Ascot Chase, run over two miles and five furlongs since 2008, gives those horses stuck between two and three miles a relatively rare opportunity to register a Grade 1 win, and, perhaps as a result, features several dual winners on its rollcall. Monet’s Garden (2007 and 2010), Riverside Theatre (2011 and 2012) and Cue Card (2013 and 2017) all won the prize twice, with Cue Card only finding one too good in last year’s renewal as he sought an historic third win in the race.
That horse was Waiting Patiently, an exciting chaser who is lightly raced for his age (eight) and unbeaten when completing over fences. He won an intermediate chase at Carlisle, listed event at Kempton and this race (by two and three quarter lengths from Cue Card) in 2017/18.
He passed his most demanding test at the time with flying colours that day, putting up a top-class effort, typically travelling well and produced to lead before the last. After connections decided to bide their time, his belated return this season in the King George VI Chase at Kempton won by Clan des Obeaux didn’t go to plan, as he was hampered and unseated his rider at the ninth through no fault of his own. He could yet prove to be something out of the ordinary and a big effort is expected, with the race likely to be run to suit as he drops back in trip.
It’s perhaps not realistic to expect the strong stayer Abolitionist – whose jockey Sam Twiston-Davies was clearly told to go out in front and not mess things up from a BHA mark of 122 when making all the running over hurdles at Aintree in November (and who won’t be 100/1 if he gets a run in either the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival or the Grand National at Aintree a month later) – to be quick enough to front-run again, but Charbel and Cyrname should help ensure a decent pace.
Charbel has a poor record over fences at the Cheltenham Festival, but is a consistent and high-class chaser otherwise. He’s been better than ever this season, winning a handicap at Chepstow in October and the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon (by eight lengths from God's Own) in December. He wasn’t quite in the same form – the presence of Speredek seeming to unsettle him, neither travelling nor jumping so well as at Huntingdon – when five and a quarter lengths third of five to Top Notch in a listed event at Kempton last time, but is not to be totally discounted here, with any drying of the ground in his favour.
The more realistic contender, though, is Cyrname. Despite being hard to train according to his trainer Paul Nicholls (“For the last three months he has settled down enormously; we can train him normally and have finally got rid of the hood), he won three times in 2017/18, including the Wayward Lad Novices' Chase and Pendil Novices' Chase (by 11 lengths from The Unit), both at Kempton. He was better than ever when impressively winning the bet365 Handicap Chase over C&D (by 21 lengths from Doitforthevillage, jumping well/tanking along in the lead and clear from the fifth) last time.
Cyrname did get an easy lead there and is back up in grade here, but a repeat of that performance would see him firmly in the mix.
Paul Nicholls also has another leading contender in the proven Grade 1 performer Politologue, for whom this race has always been the plan. He’s a top-class, bold-jumping chaser who won four times in 2017/18, including beating Fox Norton by half a length (Charbel fourth) in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown and Melling Chase at Aintree (by a neck from Min). He made a fine start to this campaign when winning the 1965 Chase over C&D (by half a length from Charbel) in November, taking his course record to 2/2, and possibly failed to stay when 18 lengths fourth to Clan des Obeaux in the King George VI Chase last time. The drop in trip here is in his favour, and he should get a strong pace which suits his strong-travelling/idle late on style, so a bold bid is expected once more.
Another fascinating top-class contender is Fox Norton, who was successful four times in 2016/17, including the Melling Chase at Aintree and Boylesports Champion Chase at Punchestown. He wasn’t himself when pulled up in a King George experiment the following season, but shaped as if retaining all his ability after 13 months off with injury when seven lengths second (without his usual hood) to superstar Altior in the Clarence House Chase here last time.
Fox Norton stays this longer trip so should have no issues with the step back up in distance and a big performance is expected, with his usual headgear likely to return.
Aso has taken his form to a higher level in two starts this season, landing a competitive handicap at Newbury (from a BHA mark of 150, by 13 lengths from Touch Kick) in November. He then made light of an 8 lb rise in the weights when following up in a seven-runner Grade 3 handicap at Cheltenham (by two lengths from subsequent winner Happy Diva, leading at the eighth and making the rest) last time. He was third in the 2017 Ryanair and will presumably be aimed at that race again in the spring, but this looks a good calling point, and he is likely to run well once more despite the step back up in grade.
Janika (who also has an entry at Kelso on Thursday and in a handicap on the same Ascot card on Saturday) is a French recruit who showed useful form when winning his final two outings for Guy Cherel, and has shown improvement in two starts for his new yard this season, running to a very smart level when two and a quarter lengths second to Hell's Kitchen here in December and then improving again when a head second of 11 to Siruh du Lac in Grade 3 handicap at Cheltenham last time. He came from much further back than the winner that day and is open to further improvement as a chaser, so is not discounted if pitching up here, despite the rise in grade. His stablemate Top Notch would be a leading contender, but is reportedly unable to run here due to new BHA regulations following the recent Equine Influenza outbreak.
Politologue gave 6 lb to Charbel when beating him here in November, and, with that form franked since, he edges a narrow verdict ahead of Waiting Patiently and Fox Norton. Waiting Patiently put in a career-best when winning this race 12 months ago, but he may lack a little for match practice after being parted from jockey Brian Hughes at a relatively early stage of the King George in December, while Fox Norton wasn't far off his best when chasing home Altior here last month and will be a big threat if improving for the outing. Aso, Charbel and Cyrname are no back numbers, either, in what looks a terrific renewal.
Back Politologue to win Saturday’s Betfair Ascot Chase at 11/4