The Cheltenham Festival showpiece, the Gold Cup dominates the four days of the Festival meeting.
The Blue Riband of chasing is contested by the very best staying chasers all looking to land the winners’ purse of more than £325,000, and the race presents a formidable challenge for horse and jockey alike taking on the best their peers.
The top-class contest boasts a veritable ‘who’s who’ of chasing, and the top-class contest has been won in the past by some of the very best horses, many of whom have been labelled legendary. The likes of Kauto Star, Denman, Best Mate, Desert Orchid, Dawn Run and Arkle are just a few of the big names who have contested and won this prize.
Often a hugely exciting spectacle to watch, the 2017 renewal is sure to be no different in its search for a winner, and for months now all the talk has surrounded Colin Tizzard’s dominant novice Thistlecrack
(7/4, Sky Bet
), who of course won the 2016 World Hurdle in impressive fashion here.
The Kayf Tara gelding has been imperious since stepped up to three miles, and he would have been unbeaten over the trip and beyond prior to the recent Cotswold Chase had he not encountered trouble in running behind Killultagh Vic at Punchestown back in April 2015.
A top-class staying hurdler, he had promised to be even better over fences and he won four on the trot in near-effortless style prior to pitching up at Cheltenham in late-January to contest the Grade Two Cotswold Chase.
Thistlecrack lost his unbeaten record over fences in the Cotswold Chase.
One of those wins saw him brush aside top-class stablemate Cue Card to win the King George VI Chase, which was a relatively weak renewal of that mid-winter highlight; but beaten last time at Cheltenham, he lost nothing in defeat.
He didn’t jump as fluently on occasion as he had done in the past, perhaps being taken out of his rhythm by the front running Smad Place; but despite the mistakes, he had every chance to win again only to be outstayed by the ill-fated Many Clouds up the stiff Cheltenham Hill with the pair pulling well clear.
The Gold Cup will represent an ever sterner test taking on more established Grade One contenders, while he has to prove he gets the extra quarter-mile up the hill. Despite his setback though, he remains the one to beat, and likely to have learned plenty from the experience taking on seasoned campaigners he is sure to go close with a clear round although he could be punished making those errors in a bigger, stronger field of runners.
(7/1, Paddy Power
) arguably had his best chance twelve months ago when travelling at least as well as eventual victor Don Cossack when falling three out.
The King’s Theatre gelding has been in remarkable form following a wind operation, and he bounced back from that fall to win the Betfred Bowl at Aintree next time; the race may have come too soon at Punchestown, and he looked to need the run when third on his comeback in the Charlie Hall Chase.
Having won impressively to land another Betfair Chase at Haydock, he seemingly had no answer to his stablemate when beaten behind Thistlecrack at Kempton. While he will have his supporters again, there is a suspicion that the boat has already left on his Gold Cup claims.
Along with Thistlecrack and Native River, Cue Card represents a powerful Colin Tizzard challenge. Native River
(9/2, Paddy Power
) meanwhile adds a powerful third string to the Tizzard challenge for this race, and the progressive Indian River gelding won a Grade One chase last term at Aintree, having earlier found only Minella Rocco too strong in the National Hunt Chase.
He has won 2-3 starts this term, landing the Hennessy at Newbury and then producing an excellent weight-bearing performance to win the Welsh Grand National. This will be considerably tougher taking on established Grade One performers off level weights, but he can continue to improve and isn’t one to be dismissive about given he is guaranteed to get this trip and he may be hard to peg back.
(40/1, Sky Bet
) could be a potential fourth runner in the race, and the former French-trained Dream Well gelding came with a tall reputation ahead of his run in the Peter Marsh at Haydock.
A multiple winner in France, he was pulled up in that contest having run poorly; but he subsequently scoped badly after the race. His trainer has left him in the Gold Cup picture, and he could well bounce back from that lesser effort although whether he’s good enough to trouble Tizzard’s top-three is an unknown.
Bristol De Mai
(14/1, Paddy Power
) leapt into the Gold Cup picture when impressively winning the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock, where he ran out a wide-margin winner. Nigel Twiston-Davies’ charge was a Grade One winner as a novice, but often looked irresolute and he racked up four consecutive runner-up efforts prior to that success.
This would demand significantly more from the Saddler Maker gelding, but he is another who is going the right way. He has improved for the step up to three miles, and given the ease of his win last time he has more to offer.
Bristol De Mai was impressive in landing the Peter Marsh Chase. Outlander
(12/1, Sky Bet
) and Don Poli
) were both in the thick of things in the Lexus Chase, where the former prevailed in a pulsating finish with Djakadam
(7/1, Paddy Power
) back in third.
The trio should all be involved again, although there is a suspicion that Willie Mullins’ charge could reverse the form with both and he’s been down this road twice before behind Coneygree and Don Cossack in the past two years.
Don Poli was never competitive in the contest twelve months ago, unable to go the gallop on the ground, and his hopes will rest on the race turning into a slog for which he would be well-suited. Outlander meanwhile surprised with his stamina having looked a suspect stayer over the trip previously, but his reserves will be put through a sterner test here.
There may be some value though in taking an interest in CHAMPAGNE WEST
(20/1, Paddy Power
) who was a progressive sort for Philip Hobbs in seasons past, but his progress stalled after a fall at Sandown behind Gitane Du Berlais, and he failed to complete in three of his next four starts which included behind Vautour in the Ryanair Chase.
The Westerner gelding moved to Henry de Bromhead, for whom he has won twice from three starts with successes at Tramore on New Years’ Day, and at Gowran Park where he ran away with the Theystes Chase despite carrying a big weight.
He had some good sorts well-strung out behind him, including Ucello Conti and Bonny Kate, and the step up to three miles seems to have unlocked some untapped potential in him given the way he has powered to victory on each of his last two runs. The jumping errors that plagued his time with his previous handler have looked a thing of the past in his two wins, and he jumped soundly to win at Gowran Park.
On His Own and Djakadam both won the Theystes prior to going close in the Gold Cup later the same season, and while De Bromhead’s runner will need to improve in order to follow suit, he has looked a different animal in his last two outings and he could now be realising the potential he had shown for Philip Hobbs previously.
Henry De Bromhead looks to have sorted out Champagne West's jumping issues.
Last season’s National Hunt Chase winner, Minella Rocco
) was absent after that success until returning to post a hugely creditable third to Viconte Du Noyer at Cheltenham in November; that run was followed up by a fall behind Many Clouds at Aintree where he looked held, and Jonjo O’Neill’s charge will need to improve significantly on that effort.
The RSA Chase is usually a good barometer to subsequent Gold Cup winners, but 2016 winner Blaklion
) has seemingly had his limitations exposed in three runs this term. Granted they have all come in some decent contests, but he looked to have no excuses behind Definitely Red in the Rowland Meyrick and he will face a very tough task in this company.
Taquin Du Seuil
), Smad Place
(66/1, Sky Bet
) and Irish Cavalier
) while all high-class performers at their best are also likely to find this company too hot; but Zabana
) and Empire Of Dirt
(28/1, Sky Bet
) could both be given chances on the pick of their respective form.
The former, having unseated at the start in the JLT Novices’ Chase, went on to beat Outlander at Punchestown next time, and having shaped as if in need of the run in the Belfast Chase he won at Gowran Park next time.
Not at his best in the Lexus Chase, he could bounce back although he would certainly have to. Empire Of Dirt was notching up the middle leg of a hat-trick when winning the Brown Advisory Plate here last March, and Gordon Elliott’s charge overcame an absence to score readily at Navan when winning the Troytown from Abolitionist.
He is another for whom improvement would be required, but he would be entitled to run well. Former champion Lord Windermere
) couldn’t build on his narrow defeat behind Champagne Fever when finishing ninth in the Lexus and Jim Cullotty’s charge has arguably put his best days behind him, while Silviniaco Conti
(66/1, Sky Bet
) was well-beaten in the Cotswold Chase behind Thistlecrack, and his record around Cheltenham is uninspiring in any case.
Thistlecrack, despite tasting defeat for the first time over fences in the recent Cotswold Chase, will surely take plenty of beating if learning from the experience and seeing out this additional quarter-mile.
There is a chance though that Colin Tizzard’s charge could be outstayed up the hill as was the case behind the ill-fated Many Clouds in that Cheltenham run. Tizzard could also saddle Cue Card – whose chance may have passed him by - and Native River, who is a thorough stayer but needs to improve.
Djakadam looks sure to go well again, but it could be worth chancing CHAMPAGNE WEST
(20/1, Paddy Power
) to run a big race now his jumping problems seem to have been ironed out by Henry De Bromhead. Formerly with Philip Hobbs, the Westerner gelding achieved a good level for that handler prior to joining this yard; and he is 2-3 for De Bromhead with successes at Tramore on New Years’ Day, and Gowran Park earlier in the month when romping to a seven-length success in the Theystes Chase under a big weight.
Jumping issues have held him back, but he jumped well around Gowran Park to score impressively, and be hit with a 12lbs rise by the handicapper; but he looked value for more in that classy success and he would be following in the footsteps of On His Own and Djakadam if he were to line-up.
Both those horses went on to place in Gold Cups later in the same season having won the Theystes, and while he has to improve again, he could be up to the challenge given he was no mug as a novice for Hobbs previously, and he may finally be realising the potential he had shown under the care of his former trainer.