The Ryanair Chase takes place on the third day of the Cheltenham Festival, also known as St. Patrick’s Thursday. It is a Grade 1 event, having been promoted from Grade 2 in 2008. The horses have to race over a distance of two miles and five furlongs and the 2016 winner was the Willie Mullins-trained Vautour.
It is the third race of the day and the precursor to another feature race, the Stayers’ Hurdle. The Ryanair Chase was one of a group of races that were added to the Festival schedule when it was extended from a three-day event to four in 2005 so is a relatively young race.
Some key trends and statistics to look out for are:
10 of the 12 previous winners were priced 6/1 or below and came from the first three in the betting.
Horses that ran in the King George this season (ideally finishing in first six) have a good record in this.
Horses that have previously won a graded chase at Cheltenham.
32 of the 33 Irish trained horses have been beaten. Vautour bucked that trend last year.
Just eight runners go to post on Thursday afternoon and here is your runner-by-runner guide:
Great things were expected of this French recruit when he came over to join the Colin Tizzard team, but thus far the seven-year-old has failed to sparkle. Such was the confidence for his British debut at Haydock Park that many pundits were predicting Tizzard would hold the first four favourites in the Gold Cup: Thistlecrack, Native River, Cue Card and Alary. He was pulled up at Haydock and then fell at Exeter on his subsequent run. It will require a leap of faith to back this horse on St Patrick’s Thursday and Tizzard will need all the lucky clover he can muster you feel.
He did well to finish fifth to Douvan in the Arkle last year given the mistakes he made and, before that, had beaten Ballyalton - who went on to win the Novices’ Handicap Chase at the Festival - at Market Rasen. This season Aso ran a respectable fourth in the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham, won a little handicap at Chepstow over Christmas, ran disappointingly in the Barbados Trophy and recently finished a close fourth in the BetBright Gold Cup. Venetia Williams would probably like a little more juice in the ground to see her gelding run up to his best.
Empire Of Dirt
The Irish-bred gelding has rapidly improved over fences and was successful at the Festival last year when scoring decisively by four-lengths in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Grade Three Handicap, coming well clear of his rivals on the run-in. Gordon Elliott's charge returned to action this season with a four-length victory at Navan in the Troytown Chase in November before running a career best to finish a three-quarter length second to Sizing John in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month. Connections have decided to go for this race rather than the Gold Cup which could be a tip in itself.
Josses Hill runs in the Ryanair Chase again this year and his trainer Nicky Henderson will be hoping for better than last year’s eighth-place finish in the race, which was won by Vautour. Josses Hill’s last outing was in the King George on Boxing Day, when he finished last of five behind Thistlecrack, but he had won the Betfred Peterborough Chase impressively at Huntingdon before that and will hope to make a better impression in this contest. His Festival record is decent despite last year's defeat, with second placed finishes in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle and Arkle already to his name. With a clear round of jumping he could gain revenge on Un De Sceaux.
Sub Lieutenant is the apparent second string of owners Gigginstown Stud in this race but it would be unwise to read into that too much. The gelding had some fair form to his name over fences last season when trained by Sandra Hughes. Since joining Henry De Bromhead the eight-year-old has taken his game up another notch. Sub Lieutenant could not have been more impressive at Down Royal when beating Outlander by 3 1/2 lengths in the Grade Two Titanic Belfast Chase. Outlander has since gone on to land the Grade One Lexus Chase so that victory against him speaks volumes.
Un De Sceaux
Winner of the Arkle two years ago, he had no answer behind Sprinter Sacre in the Champion Chase last season and will step up in trip in this race. Willie Mullins' nine-year-old is unbeaten over fences this season and looked in good order when he accounted for Uxizandre in the rearranged Clarence House Chase at Cheltenham in January. He has won around this distance over hurdles, but that came at Auteuil, and the Cheltenham hill will prove a greater test to his stamina. Any chinks in his armour will certainly be exploited by some closely matched rivals.
Alan King is sweet on the chances of his 2015 Ryanair Chase victor in this year’s contest. The JP McManus-owned nine-year-old provided Sir A.P McCoy with his final Grade One success at the Festival two years ago and returned from injury with a decent second behind Un De Sceaux in the Clarence House Chase in January. Given that he was taking on top-class horses who were race fit he powered on up the hill in impressive style and could give the principles plenty to think about in the closing stages.
Nicky Henderson added to his prolific Kempton record when saddling Vaniteux to victory in the Listed 32Red Casino Chase last time out. The eight-year-old has run some decent races on his previous visits to Prestbury Park but has never won there. The suspicion with this Henderson runner is that he will struggle to see out the trip like he did in the Raymond Mould Handicap.
The strong form of Henry De Bromhead’s Sub Lieutenant looks head and shoulders above some of the other horse’s credentials in this race. The tie in with Outlander is the reason we are making this horse our selection in this race.
Selection: Sub Lieutenant (e.w).