The Cross Country Chase, which was first run in 2005, is probably one of the least competitive races at the Festival but it has certainly added a bit of variety to the meeting and is an entertaining spectacle.
Since its inception it has been dominated by Irish-trained runners, with Enda Bolger responsible for four of the six winners. It seems prudent then to begin our preview with his main contenders for this year's renewal.
Garde Champetre, already a dual winner of the race, currently heads the ante-post market, and it is easy to see why given his record at the track. He has won five times around Cheltenham and had legitimate excuses on his last two visits, including when left in a poor position after a very bad mistake six out in the Cross Country last year. Garde Champetre gave notice of his current well being when staying on well to finish second to Benash in a two-mile handicap hurdle at Naas on his latest outing and he is the one they will all have to beat again this time around.
In stark contrast to Garde Champetre, L'Ami has yet to win at Cheltenham, despite having run at every Festival since 2005. L'Ami has been runner-up in this particular race for the last two years but did win the La Touche at the Punchestown Festival. He has been given a typical Enda Bolger preparation, which included a surprise victory in a novice hurdle at Galway in October.
Freneys Well and Heads On The Ground are likely to turn up again but both seem past their best, though Bolger has another string to his bow this year in the shape of former Grand National runner-up King Johns Castle. After blotting his copybook by refusing to jump off on a couple of occasions last season, King Johns Castle has been rejuvenated by the switch from Arthur Moore's yard, finishing second to L'Ami over the banks course at Punchestown prior to getting the better of the prolific Tyrone Golden Rain in a point at Kilfeacle last month. King Johns Castle was slow to jump off that day as well, however, so anyone wanting to back him at Cheltenham may be best advised to trade in-running.
Last year's winner A New Story is a bit of a law unto himself. His victory last season was his first of any description for well over four years, but he proved there was no fluke about it when finishing a close fourth to Bluesea Cracker in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse the following month. He hasn't got anywhere near that form this season, however, and whether he will consent to put his best foot forward at Cheltenham is anybody's guess.
Sizing Australia has taken well to this discipline, finishing in the frame on four of his five starts, and was still well in touch when getting hampered on the home turn last year. Another Jewel became a rare non Enda Bolger-trained winner of a banks race at Punchestown when winning the P. P. Hogan Memorial last year and produced a career-best effort to finish fourth here last year. An out-and-out stayer, Another Jewel subsequently won a listed chase at Le Lion-d'Angers over an extended four and a half miles in May.
The British challenge is likely to be headed by the ultra-consistent Lacdoudal, who ended a lengthy losing streak at the Open meeting in November. He will be weighted to confirm that form with Garde Champetre and looks sure to give another good account. Maljimar seemed to have his stamina stretched when third to Garde Champetre and Sizing Australia in a course-and-distance handicap in December 2009 and has since fallen twice over the National fences at Aintree.
In conclusion, it is hard to get away from Enda Bolger's contingent. Garde Champetre may well prove to be the best of them again but he doesn't represent much value at his current odds of 5.7. King Johns Castle may well be shorter than 15.0 on the day but probably isn't one to place a great deal of faith in. That leaves us with Phillip Hobbs's Lacdoudal, who is proven on the track, will meet Garde Champetre on more favourable terms than when beating him here in November and doesn't seem to know how to run a bad race. Lacdoudal makes plenty of appeal at his current odds of 10.0.