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Injury stricken stars leave Champion Chase wide open

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The Queen Mother Champion Chase is the feature race on the second day of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival and it’s a spectacle sure to have the capacity crowd crammed inside Prestbury Park on their edge of their seats.

The Cheltenham faithful have looked on in awe and admiration as some of the greatest names in the sport have powered to victory in this electric two-miler, with the names of Flyingbolt, Viking Flagship, Moscow Flyer and Sprinter Sacre adorning the famous trophy.

While this year’s renewal is sure to captivate audiences, the fitness doubts surrounding the two star names in the division have turned the 2018 Champion Chase into a bit of a puzzle. A puzzle experts and punters alike will eagerly try to solve.

Altior ran roughshod through the chasing ranks during his novice campaign. His triumph in the Arkle was sandwiched between two defeats of his elders – first in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury, before scoring a stylish victory in the Celebration Chase. The two-time Festival hero was instantly installed as the favourite for the Champion Chase following that Arkle triumph and his reign of dominance was expected to continue into 2018. Yet, just days before his planned reappearance in the Tingle Creek, Nicky Henderson heard a noise.

The worrying sound was coming from Altior’s throat and Henderson was quick to get the vets involved. What they found was a wind problem, all-be-it a minor one, but the resulting surgery has left Henderson with a race against the clock to get his seven-year-old fit in time for Cheltenham. A return to Newbury’s Game Spirit Chase would be the ideal prep-run before the Festival, but whether Altior will appear in that Grade Two is yet to be seen.

24 hours after Altior’s Arkle triumph, fellow unbeaten chaser Douvan approached the post in the Champion Chase. Willie Mullins’ dual-Festival winner seemed to be in good form and there was hardly a soul inside Prestbury Park who expected the hot-favourite to be beaten. The sound of jaws dropping reverberated around Prestbury Park as Douvan, who had looked uncharacteristically unsettled throughout the race, dropped rapidly through the field as Special Tiara romped home to claim a surprise victory.

Examinations following that shock defeat found that Douvan had suffered a stress fracture to the pelvis during the early stages of the Champion Chase. Mullins was confident his top chaser would be fit to return in the autumn and possible winter appearances at Sandown and Leopardstown were tentatively pencilled in.

After both potential reappearance dates were scuppered, Mullins delivered a bulletin all jumps racing fans were hoping they wouldn’t hear, revealing he was so unhappy with Douvan’s progress that it would be unlikely he would race at all this season. Yet, just four short weeks later, Mullins and his team turned full circle, proclaiming Douvan had turned a corner in his rehabilitation and there was every chance he could make it to the Festival.

Even the most ardent fans of both these superstar chasers would openly admit they would love to see the Altior, Douvan showdown. There is a still a possibility the Cheltenham crowds could be treated to the clash of champions in the Queen Mother, but while the clouds continue to linger over the two most likely winners, the most prudent plan would be to explore other possible options.

In Altior’s absence, Paul Nicholls’ Politologue has risen to the top of the two mile pile in Britain. He upset Fox Norton to win the Tingle Creek, before trouncing a mediocre field in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton. Waiting Patiently is a progressive sort to be feared and Malcom Jefferson could still turn his attentions to the Champion Chase, despite making the smoothest of transitions to two-and-a-half miles.

If Douvan fails to prove his fitness before the spring, Min is likely to lead Willie Mullins’ assault on the Champion Chase and he would love another crack at Altior, having come out second-best in that famous renewal of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle back in 2016.

Reigning Ryanair winner Un De Sceaux and dual-Cheltenham champion Yorkhill feature prominently in the ante-post betting for multiple Festival races and it’s becoming ever more likely that one of these two star chasers will feature in this year’s Queen Mother. Whichever one of them is assigned to Wednesday’s showpiece race, there’s no doubting both have the required attributes to triumph at Cheltenham and be crowned Champion Chaser in 2018.

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