19 Jan

Philip Sale | Wednesday January 19 2022, 10:49am | Racing Comment

The 2012 renewal of Ascot's Clarence House Steeple Chase, won by Somersby, was run as the "25th Anniversary of The Victor Chandler Chase". This despite the fact the inaugural running actually took place 23 years earlier. 

If the sponsors were cursing their luck that the first two runnings in 1987 and 1988 were both cancelled (due to snow and fog respectively) then the race's maiden winner in 1989 - a certain Desert Orchid - will surely have softened the blow. 

Lest we forget that until 2008 the race was run as a handicap. Consequently David Elsworth's charge was asked to concede a mighty 22lbs to runner-up Panto Prince. With just a head between the pair, it was nothing if not a pulsating first edition of the race, narrated in typical style by Sir Peter O'Sullevan. "Dessie's fighting back like a tiger!" he famously exclaimed.

That the greatest of greys would famously win the Gold Cup just two months later can only have been a further boon to the new race and its ambitious sponsors.  

"Dessie's fighting back like a tiger!"

Victor Chandler would sponsor for the final time in 2013. And whilst 'Dessie' took the first, it was Sprinter Sacre who closed out the era, making short work of six rivals in a race rerouted to Cheltenham's January meeting. Of course, Nicky Henderson's highest rated horse subsequently won the Queen Mother Champion Chase. 

Nearly a decade on and the Clarence House retains its quality, if not a consistent sponsor. In the eight renewals since Sprinter Sacre's victory, Sire De Grugy (2014), Dodging Bullets (2015), Un De Sceaux (2017) and Altior (2019) all went on to win at Cheltenham two months later. Three of the four would win the Queen Mother, with Un De Sceaux the outlier, stepping up in trip to win the Ryanair Chase. 

If the race's influence on the two-mile chase division needed further emphasis, on the 29 occasions in which a Clarence House and Queen Mother double has been possible, it has been achieved seven times. Viking Flagship (1994), Call Equiname (1999) and Master Minded (2009) complete the roll of honour. 

The Clarence House appears to hold a rather unique place in the annals of racing history. Perhaps it is the timing of the race, sandwiched as it is between a hectic and high-quality Christmas programme, the emergent Dublin Racing Festival and the Cheltenham Festival itself. This is a Grade One trainers can target with gusto, safe in the knowledge it allows ample recovery time ahead of Cheltenham.

Perhaps it is also the notoriously small fields. After all, there have been a mere 60 runners in the last ten renewals, with no field comprising of more than eight. The 2019 renewal yielded a pitiful field of three, a year in which plenty were running scared of the 175-rated Altior.

"This is a Grade One trainers can target with gusto, safe in the knowledge it allows ample recovery time ahead of Cheltenham"

Whilst small fields are undoubtedly becoming the scourge of British racing, somewhat surprisingly they are not a modern phenomenon in the Clarence House. Indeed, three of the first four renewals comprised of just five runners (76 in all across the first decade), and this in an era fondly remembered for challenges being embraced rather than shirked.

Across 32 renewals of the race, 15 have featured fields of less than eight. This is a race, then, that attracts quality over quantity. We have somehow come this far without a single mention of Well Chief, Ask Tom or Martha's Son. 

Evidence tells us that the handicap years certainly created the better match-ups, with few races coming as a formality. Call Equiname and Get Real (1999), Nordance Prince and Flagship Uberalles (2000) and Isio and Azertyuiop (2004) were all separated by a neck. Sybillin's 10-length success in 1990 was the only double-figure margin in this era.  

Since the Clarence House was afforded Grade One status, winning distances have increased. Its first winner, Tamarinbleu, foretold the future with a 12-length success in 2008. Quickly on his heels came Master Minded (2009), Twist Magic (2010) and Sprinter Sacre (2013) who each won by 16, 10 and 14 lengths respectively. 

What the race has continued to churn out, in either era, is Cheltenham winners. Put simply, seven winners and five beaten horses* have gone on to win the Queen Mother that very same year, with two more winning the Ryanair and Gold Cup respectively. In all, that is 15 horses progressing from the race to win at Cheltenham.

It is not always healthy for the sport to have a preoccupation with the Cheltenham festival but, at the time of writing, Energumene and Shiskin are still scheduled to cross swords in Saturday's renewal. History tells us it would be a brave soul to back against the winner come March. 


* The five horses beaten in the Clarence House Chase who subsequently won the Queen Mother Champions Chase are Katabatic (1991), Viking Flagship (1995), Azertyuiop (2004), Finian's Rainbow (2012) and Special Tiara (2017)

The race was cancelled in 1987 (frost), 1988 (fog) and 2007 (waterlogging). 

The race was run at Warwick in 1994, Kempton 1997 & 1999, Cheltenham 2005, 2013 & 2017 and Sandown 2006.

Un De Sceaux remains the only horse to have won the race three times, successful in 2016, 2017 & 2018. 

Image: On the Rails, Ascot by Colin Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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