CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: in-depth preview of this year's Gold Cup

Spring has sprung, and the daffodils are surely out at Pittville Park, which lines the uphill route from the town centre to Prestbury Park for racegoers wending their way to the Cheltenham Festival.

One of the warm fancies for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, Native River, ridden by champion jockey Richard Johnson. (PHOTO BY: Julian Herbert/PA Wire).
One of the warm fancies for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, Native River, ridden by champion jockey Richard Johnson. (PHOTO BY: Julian Herbert/PA Wire).

In full bloom alongside the flowers are the tips and the trends, the advice and the analysis for punters to pore over as the build-up to the greatest show on turf goes into overdrive.

So let’s jump on the bandwagon and join the fun. My eve-of-meeting tips for all 28 races will be posted here on the evening of Sunday, March 12 before I set off for the Cotswolds. In the meantime, let’s have a detailed look at the annual highlight of the Festival, the Timico Gold Cup, to be run on the last of the four days.

In the space of a remarkable couple of months this winter, the Gold Cup’s hot favourite THISTLECRACK went from unbeatable to untreatable, via vulnerable. First came his sparkling success, as a novice, in the King George at Kempton. Then his dramatic defeat at the hands of the ill-fated MANY CLOUDS, which exposed serious stamina doubts for chasing’s Blue Riband. And finally, his tendon injury, which ruled him out of the race altogether.

Of course, Colin Tizzard’s superstar can be, and is being, treated for the knock, but just not in time for the big one. Instead he should be back by Christmas to defend his King George crown. His absence, not to mention that of the 2016 winner DON COSSACK, who has been retired through injury, and that of the 2015 winner CONEYGREE, who is on the treatment table for the umpteenth time, creates a very different Gold Cup puzzle for punters to solve. From a search to find one to beat the favourite to a richly competitive contest in which up to a dozen horses have genuine chances.

The dozen are led by the illustrious elder stablemate Thistlecrack thumped at Kempton, the redoubtable CUE CARD, still going strong fully seven years after he landed the Festival’s Bumper as a 40/1 shot. The 11yo bounced back from his King George disappointment to run away with the Grade One Ascot Chase last month in a display that persuaded punters to make him the race’s new favourite. Certainly, his best form cannot be matched by any of his rivals, and he was still travelling well when taking a crashing fall three out in last year’s contest. The tumble not only robbed him of a possible Gold Cup to top his glittering CV but also robbed us of finding out if he truly stays the trip of 3m2f. Previous evidence, backed up by the Ascot victory, suggests his optimum is shorter . Furthermore, you have to go way back to 1969, when Man first walked on the Moon, to find the last horse aged older than ten to lift Cheltenham’s premier prize. It’s even longer, 55 years, since an 11yo won it. Nevertheless, there would be no more popular victor within racing circles and his prospects are enhanced considerably by jockey Paddy Brennan’s plan to ride him much more conservatively than at Kempton when he took on Thistlecrack from a long way out and paid the price. In a renewal where there is no shortage of pace up front, such tactics could pay dividends this time.

However, if not Cue Card, what about another Tizzard inmate, NATIVE RIVER? A 7yo who has developed rapidly from the grinding galloper that finished second in the four-miler for novices at last year’s Festival. Three weeks after Cheltenham, he landed a Grade One at Aintree and this season, he has defied a hefty mark of 155 to land the Hennessy Gold Cup/Welsh National double. His Gold Cup credentials were rubber-stamped when he took one of the main trials, the Denman Chase at Newbury, with ease and now he aims to provide champion jockey Richard Johnson with his second Gold Cup. Critics have labelled Native River a one-dimensional front-runner, unlikely to get his own way at Cheltenham. But it must be said that he travelled as smoothly as at any time in his career at Newbury where Aidan Coleman replaced the injured Johnson. Maybe that was a sign of the improvement he has made, or maybe it reflected the paucity of the opposition, which comprised one rival below par and another lacking the requisite staying power. Without doubt, he needs to improve again on a display that had him winning just over four lengths from a runner-up he had 16lb in hand of according to official ratings. And while the Hennessy and Welsh National are handy prizes to have on your sideboard, neither renewal was a vintage one. Defeat for Native River would also let off the hook the Ireland editor of the ‘Racing Post’ and former jockey Richard Forristal, who told his readers last month: “The day a horse who couldn’t win the four-miler wins the Gold Cup is the day we should all give up.”

Like Tizzard, Irish trainer Gordon Elliott has three bullets to fire from his Gold Cup gun. All are the property of the 2016 winning owners, Gigginstown Stud, and while EMPIRE OF DIRT is likely to be re-routed to the Ryanair Chase, both DON POLI and OUTLANDER will take their chance. I like them both. The former has been cruelly nicknamed ‘Don Slowly’ in many quarters on account of his occasional tendency to labour and require vigorous encouragement. But his career record is, in fact, utterly admirable. He’s twice a winner at the Festival, having landed the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle in 2015 and the RSA Chase in 2016 before he finished third, under a ride from Davy Russell notable for its distinct lack of vigorous encouragement, in last season’s Gold Cup. Since then, a switch to Elliott’s yard has yielded two more rock-solid performances in Grade One company, including when in front too soon last time, meaning he has now hit the frame in nine races at the highest level. If the ground at Prestbury Park on Friday, March 17 has a fair amount of juice in it, Don Poli will be staying on strongly up the hill and won’t be far away.

Outlander will also require give to produce his best, but he is a different type of contender to his stablemate in that he remains largely unexposed at staying distances. He was regarded as potentially top-class when with Willie Mullins, who was not afraid to pitch him against the best at the biggest festivals, and his potential blossomed into serious Gold Cup pedigree when he landed the Grade One Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas when those in behind included Don Poli, the Gold Cup runner-up for the past two seasons, DJAKADAM, and a hot favourite in VALSEUR LIDO, who was at the peak of his game at the time. There are those who question the Irish form. But if Djakadam is to be treated as a serious yardstick, as he surely must be, given his Cheltenham efforts alongside the likes of Cue Card, Don Cossack and Coneygree, then Outlander merits a place on the top shelf too, especially as there could be more to come over this kind of trip.

Using the same logic, another Irish challenger, SIZING JOHN, enters the equation. For after a series of collisions with the deadly DOUVAN at shorter distances, and coming off decidedly second best, Jessica Harrington’s 7yo was also a revelation when stepped up to 3m as he mastered Don Poli by a similar margin to Outlander in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February. It could be argued that the moderate tempo of the race enabled him to stay -- a luxury he is unlikely to be afforded at Cheltenham, especially over 2f further. But the son of Midnight Legend travels and jumps like a class act capable of meeting any challenge and has proven in the past that the undulations of the Cotswolds terrain hold no fears for him.

The aforementioned Djakadam flies the flag for the magnificent Mullins after he lost Outlander, Don Poli and Valseur Lido in the much-publicised fallout with Gigginstown chief Michael O’Leary and also Vautour in much more grave circumstances. Unlike last season, when he fell in his prep race, the 8yo arrives in Cheltenham a fresh and fully fit horse. And unlike 2015, when he was second on only his sixth start over fences, he arrives a much more experienced character too. Does he quite have the ability to make it third time lucky, though, and land Mullins his first Gold Cup? More pertinently, does he quite possess the reserves of stamina to dig out victory, given that his only win around 3m was in a Gowran Park handicap off a mark of just 145? Mullins is very bullish about Djakadam’s prospects, but It’s worth noting too that of the last 62 horses, beaten in a previous Gold Cup, who have tried again in subsequent years, not one has won -- a statistic that should also worry supporters of Cue Card and Don Poli.

That Gowran Park handicap, the Thyestes Chase, has developed in recent years into one of the hottest for staying chasers on either side of the Irish Sea. This year’s cracking renewal was not only no different, it also threw up an ultra-impressive winner in CHAMPAGNE WEST who, since switching to the care of Henry De Bromhead, has been transformed into the animal former trainer Philip Hobbs thought he might be. A capable novice hurdler, he was maturing nicely over fences too until his career descended dramatically after a fall in the Scilly Isles Novice Chase of 2015 at Sandown. For more than a year, his name was preceded by more letters than numbers until De Bromhead rediscovered the key to his talent, which led to an electric front-running triumph in the Thyestes off top weight. Earlier jumping transgressions appear to have been eradicated and although he lacks Grade One form, he is a dual Cheltenham winner and should not be under-estimated.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the 2017 Gold Cup is that it pitches into the heat of battle most of the leading millionaire owners in the National Hunt game today. We have already mentioned Gigginstown, while Mullins’s major patron now, Rich Ricci, pays the bills for Djakadam, and big guns such as Alan Potts and Roger Brookhouse are responsible for Sizing John and Champagne West respectively. Graham Wylie will not be represented, but the likeable legend that is JP McManus will be, as will the big-spending duo of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. McManus is likely to be double-handed in the form of MORE OF THAT and MINELLA ROCCO, both trained by Jonjo O’Neill, whose unpredictable modus operandi is not everyone’s cup of tea but whose record in the Gold Cup is not to be sniffed at. I cannot guarantee that either horse will win, but I can guarantee that both will be trained and tuned to the minute to produce their best efforts of the season. And when you consider that the former is the only horse to have beaten ANNIE POWER when the reigning Champions Hurdler has stood up, as More Of That did when landing the 2014 World Hurdle, and when you consider that the latter was the horse who took the scalp of Native River in last year’s four-miler, then that just might be enough. The fragile More Of That was in the process of running his best race for some time when coming down at the last in Sizing John’s Irish Gold Cup last time, while the imposing Minella Rocco, who fell earlier on in the same heat, is a stayer who will relish the demands of the Gold Cup.

Meanwhile Munir and Souede will be praying that their pride and joy, BRISTOL DE MAI, will be able to put behind him a rare poor performance behind Native River in the Denman Chase. A scopy, spectacular jumper at his best, he is the youngest in the field at six, but has been top-class material since he landed a Grade One on his UK debut in his juvenile hurdle days. The question marks marring his chances concern a suspicion that he only brings his A-game to the track when left alone up front and when the ground is more wet than dry, neither of which is likely to happen here.

So there we are, a race to savour, even without our absent friends. And I haven’t even mentioned the present-day Gold Cup ‘daddy’ Paul Nicholls, who has saddled a remarkable 18 first-four finishers from his last 38 runners in the race. Exactly ten years after Kauto Star’s first win triggered a vintage era of staying chasing, Nicholls relies this time on SAPHIR DU RHEU. He’s no Kauto, and certainly no Denman, but he has always been held in the highest regard and the trainer is as puzzled as anyone why he has not yet delivered the goods. A more positive ride than usual helped him return to winning ways at Kelso last time, so expect him to be prominent again. By my reckoning, that means he will be alongside the likes of Native River, Champagne West and Bristol De Mai vying for the lead. And that, in turn, means we are almost sure to get a Gold Cup run at a relentless gallop. It is possible that Native River or Champagne West will be able to maintain that gallop and fend off all pursuers. It is probable that the winner will be a stalker or a stayer who picks them off late.