The gruelling 3m 2f contest presents a real challenge for horse and jockey alike, and is always a hugely competitive and entertaining spectacle between the best staying chasers around. It is little wonder then that recent renewals have been won by the likes of Don Cossack, Kauto Star, Denman, Kicking King and triple-winner Best Mate since the turn of the century.
The 3.30pm Festival highlight carries a first prize in excess of £300,000, and with 14 declared runners for the top-class contest punters are sure to be in for another adrenaline-fuelled renewal.
Colin Tizzard has dominated the build up to this race in recent months, with the Dorset trainer having the impressive Thistlecrack in the cross-hairs of the Gold Cup for some time; however, the 2016 World Hurdle winner suffered a minor setback and now misses out.
But Tizzard still has an enviable hand to go to war with in the contest, headed by his top-class veteran Cue Card
) who might well have won this twelve months ago had he not fallen three out when still swinging off the bridle.
The King’s Theatre gelding had been rejuvenated last term by a breathing operation which seems to have sorted out his oft-suspect stamina, and he won four of his six starts which included the Betfred Bowl at Aintree, and the King George VI Chase at Kempton where he beat Vautour.
Not at his best on his return to action this term in the Charlie Hall, he posted an impressive win in the Betfair Chase prior to relinquishing his King George VI Chase crown to stablemate Thistlecrack; but he comes into this race on the back of a bloodless success in the Ascot Chase, and with an excellent Festival record to call upon he can’t be discounted if at his best with ground no problem.
However, at eleven-years old now, there may be something with more scope in the field that can beat him.
Tizzard also saddles Native River
) who has progressed hand-over-fist this term since being beaten in the National Hunt Chase twelve months ago.
The Indian River gelding won a Grade One contest at Aintree on the back of that run, and following a pleasing seasonal debut over timber at Warwick he has gone on to win all three subsequent starts, which includes a cracking weight-bearing performance in the Welsh National.
Also the Hennessy winner, he won a three-runner race at Newbury on his last outing where he had the reopposing Bristol De Mai behind; on his bare form he needs more to land this, but his impressive progress this term could well continue and he is feared.
Bristol De Mai
(25/1, William Hill
) was an impressive winner of the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock, and that form has been franked since; however, he didn’t appear to appreciate the change in tactics last time behind Native River where he was held up and he turned in a below-par effort.
Not always the most straightforward last term, he has often flattered to deceive with his finishing efforts; while his best winning form has come with plenty of mud around, so the drying conditions are against his chances.
(4/1, Paddy Power
) has twice finished runner-up in each of the last two seasons; finding Coneygree too strong in the 2015 renewal, and then bagging the silver medal behind Don Cossack twelve months ago.
Willie Mullins’ charge was booked for third at best last year though, benefitting from the fall of Cue Card to claim the runner-up spot; however he had had a troubled preparation prior to his run here last year, falling and cutting himself in the Betbright Trial in the January.
However, he was beaten on both subsequent starts at Aintree and Punchestown behind Cue Card and Carlingford Lough respectively. Having returned from his summer break to beat Outlander at Punchestown in December, he may have found the race coming too soon when third in the Lexus Chase; but given plenty of time to get over that run, and with drying ground here in his favour the Saint Des Saints gelding looks primed for another big run.
The form of the Mullins yard over the preceding days of the Festival though give some cause to worry; the Closutton trainer didn’t have a winner in either of the first two days, which included a shock reversal for Douvan, who failed to fire in the Champion Chase.
Empire Of Dirt
) is entered to run, but he will only turn out here if he is an early casualty in Thursday’s Ryanair Chase.
The Troytown winner landed the Festival Plate on this card twelve months ago, and he subsequently backed up his Navan win with a near-miss in the Irish Gold Cup. His place in the field is far from guaranteed however given his prior engagement.
(66/1, Paddy Power
) relishes good ground, and he ran out a good winner of the Charlie Hall Chase back in October, beating a below-par Cue Card; however, he has been well-beaten on all starts since, albeit he hasn’t had his ground.
Fifth in this race twelve months ago, Rebecca Curtis’ charge has plenty on his plate again here and he’s never been fully convincing that he is a genuine Grade One performer.
(9/1, William Hill
) belied stamina doubts for three miles when winning the Irish Gold Cup last time out, adding to his earlier success at Thurles when beating Sub Lieutenant in the Kinloch Brae Chase.
Jessica Harrington’s charge had largely been campaigned over two miles previously, finishing runner-up to Douvan in the 2016 Arkle; but he has improved for the step up in trip, and he has an extra quarter-mile to go this time.
He shaped at Leopardstown though that this trip would be within his range, and while arguably needing to improve, he is proven on this ground and he can go well.
However, it could be another Irish raider that springs a big-race surprise, and CHAMPAGNE WEST
(16/1, Paddy Power
) is chanced that his jumping will hold up back at this venue.
The Westerner gelding was a useful sort for Philip Hobbs, finishing fourth to Very Wood in the 2014 Albert Bartlett prior to scoring a pair of novice chase successes here the following season.
His jumping rather fell apart afterwards though when thrust into better company, although he did post a rare completion when finishing second to Village Vic in the 2015 Caspian Caviar Gold Cup.
Following a pulled-up effort behind Vautour in last season’s Ryanair, he moved to Henry de Bromhead who has worked miracles with the Westerner gelding’s jumping; and he has thrived for the longer trip with a Listed win at Tramore prior to producing a top-class performance under a big weight to land the Theystes Chase at Gowran Park last time out.
That race has been a route taken by the likes of On His Own and Djakadam enroute to this race, and one poor early jump aside in that contest he was assured in his fencing to deliver a seven-length beating of Ucello Conti and Bonny Kate, both useful sorts.
While he would ideally prefer softer ground, he is effective under these conditions; and he showed in that Theystes win that this trip should pose no issue. There is always a chance that old jumping flaws could creep in back in stronger company; but having seemingly improved in that department under the tutelage of Henry de Bromhead, he rates a live outsider who may well have more to offer in this sphere.
(20/1, William Hill
) had Native River behind when scoring in the National Hunt Chase twelve months ago, and Jonjo O’Neill’s charge is another for whom a case could be made if his jumping holds up.
The shirocco gelding has run three times this term, finishing third to Viconte Du Noyer here in November prior to unseating at Aintree where he would have given the ill-fated Many Clouds something to worry about when the pair clashed in a Listed contest at the Liverpool track.
It was too early in the race to tell whether he would have been involved in the Irish Gold Cup finish, where he blundered Aidan Coleman out of the saddle; but if his jumping holds up, he can post a big run.
O’Neill also saddles More Of That
) in this contest, and the 2014 World Hurdle winner has had his share of setbacks since.
Third to Blaklion in last season’s RSA Chase, where he reportedly bled; he wasn’t seen out again until running poorly behind Taquin Du Seuil in the BetVictor Gold Cup, pulling up.
He has shown more of his old ability since though, finishing third to Josses Hill in the Peterborough Chase prior to a solid sixth behind Outlander in the Lexus Chase; and he was far from done with when unseating at the last in the Irish Gold Cup where he held every chance.
Good ground suits, and although he’s a fragile sort, he has the talent to get involved and could well surprise at a big price if he can build on that latest run.
) was fancied for last season’s JLT Novices’ Chase where he was a faller; but he had won a Grde One previously, and he bounced back from his fall here to post back-to-back silver medal finishes at Fairyhouse and Punchestown respectively.
Formerly with Willie Mullins, the Stowaway gelding is now with Gordon Elliott; and he has run four times for his new handler which has seen him twice finish runner-up at Down Royal and Punchestown – behind Djakadam on the latter occasion – prior to winning the Lexus Chase.
Effective on better ground, he has shown all his winning form on softer ground however; and while he is entitled to run well on the pick of his form, there is a feeling he’ll need to improve again.
This is a more searching test than the Kelso race Saphir Du Rheu
) won last time, and Paul Nicholls’ charge hasn’t really hit the heights expected of him over fences.
A high-class hurdler, the Al Namix gelding was a Hennessy faller behind Native River earlier in the seson prior to finding Foxtail Hill a hard nut to crack here in January. While he impressed in despatching Firth Of The Clyde to win the Ivan Straker Memorial at Kelso, that form is someway below the requirements to win a Gold Cup, and he’s hard to fancy taking on this company in a race so demanding of jumping excellence.
The bold-jumping Smad Place
) was found out in this race twelve months ago, finishing sixth having earlier won the Cotswold Chase and the Hennessy earlier in the season.
The Smadoun gelding hasn’t looked anywhere near his best in a trio of starts this term, most recently turning in a laboured performance in defence of his Cotswold Chase title; and it is hard to see him being good enough now to beat this field given he’ll likely be taken on for the lead which may not play to his strengths.
Tea For Two
(66/1, William Hill
) is a good sort, but his top-level limitations have been exposed this term. Runner-up to Josses Hill in the Peterborough Chsae, the Kayf Tara gelding produced a career-best effort to finish a close fourth in the King George VI Chase, beaten just over three lengths by Thistlecrack and he was less than one length off Cue Card.
Nick Williams’ charge ran out an easy winner at Exeter next time, although he was largely gifted the race by the last-fence fall of Alary who looked beaten at the time, and he was left clear of the only other finisher in Henri Parry Morgan.
A Grade One winner as a novice, he gives Lizzie Kelly a first ride in the race; and while he is expected to hold his own, it is unlikely he’ll prove good enough to mount a serious challenge.
No Coneygree, Don Cossack or Thistlecrack in the latest renewal, leaving arguably the most open Gold Cup in years.
The Colin Tizzard pair of Native River and Cue Card are respected; as is Willie Mullins’ dual runner-up Djakadam; however, in a Festival of shock results, CHAMPAGNE WEST
(16/1, Paddy Power
) is chanced to put past jumping issues behind him and win this big price on the back of his impressive Theystes Chase perfomance earlier where he carried a huge weight around in soft ground to score by seven lengths.
The Theystes route has been used in the past by On His Own and Djakadam; while Arkle and Flyingbolt also feature on the roll-of-honour for that contest; Henry de Bromhead’s charge might not match up to those legends, but he was a classy novice chaser for Philip Hobbs before his jumping collapsed.
A dual-winner over the course, his new handler seems to have sharpened up his jumping which has also seen the Westerner gelding score a Listed success at Tramore. While it has to be taken on trust that his fencing problems have been ironed out, that most recent performance over Ucello Conti and Bonny Kate showed his mettle; and potentially still open to improvement over this longer trip, he can go well if his jumping holds up in this better company.