‘The tenth anniversary of the upgrading of this race from a top handicap which often attracted a leading two-mile chaser to a supposedly championship-class race, more than enough time to suggest the switch was for the worse, so far as competitiveness is concerned, for all that some top-notch horses have won it over the last decade, not least Un de Sceaux, who was landing the prize for the third time, a win at 9/4-on following two at 2/1-on.
‘Eight of the 11 runnings have seen an odds-on favourite and only one sent off at bigger than 11/8 – how much more memorable might this race have been had the plucky runner-up [Speredek] met the winner on terms that weren't 23 lb disadvantageous?’
That was the Timeform assessment after Un de Sceaux completed his hat-trick in the Clarence House Chase in 2018, and, in the absence of Willie Mullins’ veteran chaser, Altior was sent off the shortest-priced favourite for the race there has ever been 12 months ago, ultimately beating Fox Norton easily by seven lengths to justify his SP of 10/1-on.
Altior was the notable omission when the five-day entries for Saturday’s renewal were released – he is set to reappear in next month’s Game Spirit Chase at Newbury instead – and the Clarence House is undoubtedly poorer for his absence, but we still have a fascinating contest on our hands this year, with Defi du Seuil and Un de Sceaux set to reprise their rivalry after a battle in the Tingle Creek to rival that fought out by Isio and Azertyuiop when this race was still a handicap in 2004.
Conceding 19 lb to the winner on that occasion, Azertyuiop produced an outstanding performance to go down by just a neck, achieving a Timeform rating of 182 in defeat, and there have been very few comparable efforts in terms of merit either before or since – Desert Orchid also ran to 182 when beating Panto Prince (to whom he conceded 18 lb) in another thrilling dual in 1989, while Well Chief ran to 179 when carrying top weight to victory in the 2005 renewal staged at Cheltenham.
Back to Defi du Seuil and Un de Sceaux, and it is the former who heads the market as he attempts to confirm his superiority from Sandown. A high-class novice chaser last season, with his wins including the JLT Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, Defi du Seuil has progressed again in two starts this term, comfortably winning the Shloer Chase on his return at Cheltenham (by a length and a quarter from Politologue), before producing his best performance yet to land the Tingle Creek last time.
Philip Hobbs’ charge showed the superior turn of foot that day to lead soon after the last and kept going well to get the verdict by a neck, though the rallying Un de Sceaux was closing again at the line. On that evidence, Defi du Seuil is already a leading candidate for the Champion Chase – he is behind only Altior in the ante-post betting – and he probably still has more to offer, which identifies him as a force to be reckoned with in all the top races at this sort of trip.
As for Un de Sceaux, he ran at least as well in defeat in the Tingle Creek as when recording his three previous wins in this race, defying his advancing years to add yet another top-class performance to a CV that is noteworthy for its consistent brilliance. Whereas Defi du Seuil produced a significant career best last time, Un de Sceaux was simply maintaining the high standards he has kept for over seven seasons of racing in Britain and Ireland, posting a Timeform rating of 165 or higher for the eleventh time in his career over fences.
Seven of those came when the going was described as soft or worse on the Timeform scale, and the forecast conditions for Saturday offer some encouragement for those hoping to see Un de Sceaux reverse the placings with Defi du Seuil. The ground was only good to soft when the pair met at Sandown, but it is already soft in Berkshire with plenty of rain forecast in the coming days, the result being that conditions are likely to be perfect for Un de Sceaux, who can sustain a relentless gallop on testing ground that very few horses have been able to match over the years.
Whether Defi du Seuil will be able to do so is the big question, but it’s worth noting that he has yet to encounter a heavy surface and his most potent weapon – namely his impressive turn of foot – could potentially be blunted if conditions deteriorate between now and Saturday.
The pick of the remaining three entries looks to be Janika, who produced a performance verging on top-class to make a winning reappearance in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter in November. He had his limitations at this level rather exposed when only fourth on his next start in the Tingle Creek, though, ultimately finishing nine lengths behind the principals, and there is no obvious reason why he should get any closer here after his fourth in the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham last time.
Incidentally, Janika would be receiving 5 lb from Un de Sceaux and 1 lb from Defi du Seuil were the Clarence House still a handicap, while the pair who complete the entries – Capeland (officially rated 17 lb inferior to Un de Sceaux) and Marracudja (27 lb) – would both be handsomely compensated in such circumstances. On these terms, however, it is very hard to look past Defi du Seuil and Un de Sceaux, who go head-to-head once again in a clash that still promises to deliver the competitive edge this race has so sorely missed on occasions since it was promoted to Grade 1 status.
Preference at the current prices is for Un de Sceaux, who looks set to encounter his optimum conditions and should arrive trained to the minute as he seeks a record fourth win in this race, representing connections that will simply want to win as many Grade 1 races with him as possible at this stage of his career. Defi du Seuil, on the other hand, still has a long career ahead of him all being well, and Philip Hobbs will probably want to avoid him having too hard a race with the Cheltenham Festival now only eight weeks away.
Back Un de Sceaux at 13/8 in Saturday's Clarence House Chase at Ascot