Our expert looks through the ante-post field for the Gold Cup and picks out a possible winner of the prestigious title on the final afternoon of the Cheltenham Festival.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup. The jewel in National Hunt racing's crown and the most sought-after title in the entire sport. The best long distance chasers on the planet have been gathering at Prestbury Park since 1924, all battling it out for a share of the huge prize pot and the honour of being crowned the best in the business.
This year’s race had looked like a foregone conclusion for the majority of the season. However, after recent developments, the Gold Cup picture in 2017 has become more of a landscape than a portrait - with a whole host of combatants coming to the Cheltenham Festival with a great chance of adding their name to the trophy, alongside Golden Miller, Arkle, Mandarin, Best Mate, Denman and Kauto Star.
) will bid to become the first reigning World Hurdle winner to claim the Gold Cup and just the second novice chaser to take home the trophy – following in Coneygree’s footstep, who achieved this incredible feat just two years ago. The nine-year-old began his chasing career the way he finished off over hurdles, attacking the larger obstacles with plenty of power, pace and bravado. He went into the King George VI Chase with three seasonal victories under his belt and a titanic battle between himself and Cue Card
) was expected. What followed was a massacre, as Thistlecrack dismantled the Grade 1 field and was even eased up with a few hundred yards to go by jubilant jockey, Tom Scudamore.
The Thistlecrack spell was finally broken by Many Clouds, who took advantage of the tiring favourite, who was hacking up the Cheltenham hill and got his nose over the line to claim the Cotswold Chase title. Moments after that stunning victory, Many Clouds sadly lost his life, turning what should have been a momentous occasion into a horribly sombre afternoon. As his nine-race winning run was brought to an end, Thistlecrack’s Gold Cup odds were pushed out from around the even-money mark to their current standings, but despite this shock defeat, he will still be very hard to beat on the final day of the Festival.
Colin Tizzard has enjoyed a highly successful season, especially in the major televised races. Such has been his dominance in the three-mile chasing scene, he’s an 8/1 shot to fill all three places on the Gold Cup podium and we see two of Thistlecrack’s stablemates following the favourite closely in the betting.
) recovered from a narrow defeat in the National Hunt Challenge Cup to Minella Rocco
(33/1 William Hill
), by sealing the Mildmay title at the Aintree Festival last spring. He was beaten by Silsol to the West Yorkshire Hurdle crown on his first outing of the new season, but a stylish victory in the Hennessy Gold Cup and a superb weight-carrying performance to land the Welsh National title thrust him firmly to the head of the Gold Cup market. He comfortably won his final outing before the Festival, in a testing three-horse Grade 2 at Newbury and he will travel to Cheltenham in tip-top shape, with plenty of hope he can out-stay his stablemate.Richard Johnson riding Native River (right, nearest) clear to win The Hennessy Gold Cup.
A fall three from home, when seemingly on course to challenge Don Cossack for the Gold Cup title last year, wasn’t enough to take the gloss off what had been a fantastic season for ten-year-old Cue Card. Despite Tizzard’s adamant claims that his ageing charge is just as good as he was last season, we have seen a few chinks in the teenager's armour during this campaign. He was soundly beaten by Irish Cavalier
) on decent ground at Wetherby on his first outing of the season and he couldn’t lay a hoof on Thistlecrack when his stablemate sped away from him down the home straight at Kempton. He did manage to retain his Betfair Chase crown at Haydock in-between those two disappointing results and he will be hoping to take victory in the Ascot Chase later in February and carry some much-needed momentum into the Festival.
) has had to settle for second place in the Gold Cup, finishing a narrow second to Don Cossack and Coneygree on his last two visits to Cheltenham. He may have tasted defeat on five of his last six outings, but he still brings some plenty of good form into the Festival with him this year. Willie Mullins’ charge beat Outlander
(12/1 William Hill
) to the Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial Chase title to kick-off his season, before being narrowly edged out it by Gordon Elliott’s charge and Don Poli
) in the Lexus Chase.
Outlander has been an incredibly consistent performer for a long time now – Gordon Elliott will have been delighted to see him claim a long-awaited major Grade 1 title and turning the tables on Djakadam will have made the victory taste even sweeter. He was looming up on the leaders in the JLT at the Festival last season, but a fall two from home saw his strong challenge come to an end. That was just the first in a six-race sequent of high-profile disappointments, but he put in an excellent showing at Leopardstown over Christmas and thoroughly deserved his Lexus victory.
) has made a rapid transformation from Douvan’s bridesmaid to Gold Cup contender. As little as two races ago, Jessica Harrington’s charge had been beaten six times in two mile Grade 1 contests by Douvan and had fallen to a disappointing third at the Aintree Festival on his only outing over an extended trip. The Potts owned seven-year-old then went on to beat Sub Lieutenant in excellent fashion to win the two-and-a-half-mile Kinlock Brae Chase at Thurles, before conquering the Irish Gold Cup field at Leopardstown on his final outing before setting sail to Cheltenham.
Empire Of Dirt
was closest to Sizing John as they passed the post in the Irish Gold Cup, with beaten favourite, Don Poli struggling home in third. Both look set for a tilt at the Grand National but could be strong each-way contenders for Gordon Elliott. Elliott is currently leading Willie Mullins in the race for the Irish Champion Trainer title for the first time and after Mullins suffered some major setbacks, he will be hoping a strong showing from his Gold Cup challengers will help him hold onto that lead after the Cheltenham festivities have come to a close.Sizing John (fore) beating Empire Of Dirt (back) to the Irish Gold Cup crown.Bristol De Mai’s
incredible performance in the Grade 2 Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock saw his Gold Cup credentials given a substantial boost. Nigel Twiston-Davies and Daryl Jacob got their tactics horribly wrong when they finished last behind Native River and Le Mercury on their last outing, but he still remains a highly credible each-way candidate. Champagne West
) has to be given am outside chance too, after romping to a comfortable victory in the highly profitable Thyestes Handicap Chase at Gowran Park in January. He too holds an entry into the Grand National, but a good showing here will be the perfect warm-up to that historic race.
Lord Windemere is the only winner of the Gold Cup to go to post at a double-figured price since 1999 and such is the proven quality fighting it out at the head of the field in this year's renewal, it’s only natural to head in that direction to find a possible champion.
Sizing John travelled smoothly in the Irish Gold Cup and held off a strong field with apparent ease. He looks open to plenty of progression and could improve even more on the firmer going at Cheltenham. Outlander is a high-quality, consistent performer and could be a handful if he can jump to the best of his ability. Cue Card and Djakadam remain credible dangers, however, this looks more and more like being a two-horse Tizzard tussle for the title.
Native River is a proven stayer - no matter how quickly the leaders are going, he will be able to stay with them. That defeat to the gallant Many Clouds was a significant blow to THISTLECRACK’S chances, but he was only beaten by a nose on unfavourably soft ground, so I can’t see it affecting his confidence too much on his return to Cheltenham. Ground will be all important come the Festival. If there is plenty of rain in the air, then Native River will fancy his chances, but if we get our usual good spring going at Prestbury Park, Thistlecrack will take all the beating.
17/3/2017 3:30pm Cheltenham selection – THISTLECRACK (7/4 SkyBet)