Conditions give Sub Lieutenant a chance for Ryanair glory
De Bromhead star aims to give Michael O’Leary a first victory in own race
Sub Lieutenant: last year he closed on Un De Sceaux from the final fence, eventually narrowing the gap to a length and a half. Photograph: Inpho/Presseye
Cheltenham’s ultra-testing conditions could prove to be a mixed blessing for one of the festival’s strongest favourites Un De Sceaux on Thursday.
The defending Ryanair Chase champion doesn’t just cope with testing ground. He thrives on it. Throw in his usual flamboyant jumping from the front and the task up with Un De Sceaux proves beyond most other horses.
With more overnight rain forecast to fall on already soft ground the idea of keeping tabs on Willie Mullins’s star looks a thankless one.
Except the Ryanair is over an extended two and a half miles and in potentially heavy going that may just stretch the stamina of a horse that could still start odds-on despite Ruby Walsh’s absence.
Amidst the joy at this hugely popular star’s victory a year ago it was easy to forget he looked to be running on pretty much empty in the final hundred metres. And that was on much better ground.
Maybe he was just idling after having burned off his opposition. But the visual impression at least that there might not have been a lot left will encourage Un De Sceaux’s opposition in the most valuable of the Day Three festival contests.
Un De Sceaux might love heavy ground but if there is a stamina query about him it will also help make the final hill a real test.
The plus point for his legion of fans is that he has won at the trip on very soft ground at Auteuil in 2016. But that was a hurdle contest on a flat track. Cheltenham’s New Course over fences is a very different test. And that may be enough to discourage taking a very short price about him.
If last year’s race hinted at vulnerability it also suggested Sub Lieutenant could be the one to exploit it.
Even at the time it was noticeable how well Sub Lieutenant closed on Un De Sceaux from the final fence, eventually narrowing the gap to a length and a half.
He is a horse that can get three miles on good ground, has winning form on heavy, and in the circumstances the Ryanair test could be ideal. There is also the possibility he can earn a place in Michael O’Leary’s heart if he does win.
The Ryanair boss has sponsored this race since 2006. In that time he has finished runner-up three other times – Mossbank (2008,) First Lieutenant (2013) and Valseur Lido (2016.) Even his subsequent Gold Cup hero Don Cossack managed only third in 2015.
O’Leary has made no secret of his desire to win his own race and has extended his sponsorship to 2022.
Blako Des Flos has been targeted at it for some time but on the basis of normal decent festival ground. This surface is likely to be a long way removed from the sort of summer surface on which he won the Galway Plate.
Sub Lieutenant has run well off a break in the past and comes here fresh having not run since December’s Durkan behind Sizing John. At a double-digit price he appeals as an alternative if Un De Sceaux finds the combination of ground and distance a problem.
Significantly De Bromhead appears in no way discouraged at taking Un De Sceaux on again.
“I’d love to have had another go at Un De Sceaux with Sub Lieutenant on nicer ground. I thought he completely lost his position last year and ran on like anything at the end,” he said on Wednesday. “He is not as effective on soft ground but he will handle it.”
If Un De Sceaux is a sentimental Irish favourite the home team will be all behind the veteran star Cue Card. Ground conditions are likely to get even soggier if he can repeat his 2013 victory in this race.
Going is always a primary element to any race but it could be crucial to this Ryanair. Sub Lieutenant won’t get his ideal conditions. But at a big price he looks a reasonable bet to cope best.