With the Cheltenham Festival just 6 weeks away we are going to take a look at the jewel in the festival crown, the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, run over an extended 3m2f. It has been won by some National Hunt greats over the years, with the likes of Arkle, who had to see off the previous Gold Cup winner Mill House twice in the mid 60's when racking up a Gold Cup hat-trick.
Since then we have seen the mare Dawn Run become the only horse to win a Champion Hurdle and then go on to Gold Cup glory. The fantastic Best Mate gave trainer Henrietta Knight and jockey Jim Culloty a Gold Cup treble in the early 2000's. Finally there was the brilliant Kauto Star who became the only horse ever to regain the Gold Cup when beating his old foe Denman back in 2009.
So what of the class of 2017? Well the field is headed by last year's run away Stayer's Hurdle winner Thistlecrack, trained by Colin Tizzard. The UK bookmakers have him down as favourite to win the feature race on the Friday, and it’s likely there’ll be plenty free bets spent backing him in at well past evens. He will be trying to emulate 2015 winner Coneygree who became the first Novice to win the Gold Cup since 1974. For all Coneygree was a brilliant winner of the race, Thistlecrack could be something special. He was surprisingly beaten recently in the Cotswold Chase by the now late Many Clouds who produced a performance of a lifetime to lower the colours of the Gold Cup favourite.
That defeat doesn't diminish his chances though as he was beaten by a former Grand National winner who had looked better than ever after a wind operation. What we did learn about Thistlecrack though is that he is vulnerable. After he won the King George the reaction was all about how brilliant he was that day and that it was just a matter of turning up on March 17th. Now though he does have some questions to answer, mostly about his jumping and stamina.
As a Novice he obviously doesn't have the experience of his rivals but that is expected. Although impressive around Kempton, Cheltenham offered a different test and he did struggle with his jumping slightly in truth. There is no doubting that Thistlecrack is the best horse in the field and the most likely winner if he puts it all together on the day but after his recent run that 'IF' just got slightly bigger.
If Thistlecrack does disappoint for whatever reason then who is most likely to pick up the pieces? Our first point of call is the Colin Tizzard yard once again who holds another strong chance in the shape of Hennessy and Welsh National winner Native River. Now Native River doesn't have the class of his stable mate but one thing is for sure he will be relishing the hill come the end of the contest.
The question with Native River though is can he take the jump from what is effectively handicap company to the toughest Grade 1 of the lot. Winning the Hennessy and then the Welsh Grand National off top weight takes some doing but he needs to step up once again to be in the Gold Cup shake up. He is short enough in the market as of now but he will certainly give punters a run for their money with his never say die attitude.
Colin Tizzard's third dart at the Gold Cup and whom will be looking for redemption after falling last in last year's renewal is 2 time festival winner Cue Card. At 11 years old he is elder statesman of the field as such but he has proven his longevity with another solid season behind him, which included winning a second Betfair Chase at Haydock. That win setup a huge clash with stable mate Thistlecrack in the King George on Boxing Day where he was well beaten in to 2nd. Cue Card was no match for Thistlecrack that day but you get the feeling that wasn't his true running.
It's 7 years since Cue Card burst on to the scene as a 40/1 Champion Bumper winner and there wouldn't be a more fitting winner than if he could land the biggest prize of them all. He might not have the potential of some of his rivals but he's got the experience and should give a good account of himself if back to his best.
As for the rest of the British contenders, the 6yo Bristol De Mai ripped the field apart in The Peter Marsh Chase recently putting his name firmly in the Gold Cup hat. He might well need softer ground to be at his absolute peak but he showed in last year's JLT he can cope with decent ground when finishing 2nd to Black Hercules. Minella Rocco for Jonjo O'Neill won the National Hunt Chase at the Festival last year and quite a few are giving him a chance at a big price.
A lot at the moment is taken on faith after a heavy fall when last seen at Aintree in early December. Before that he had ran very well on his seasonal debut at Cheltenham when a staying on 3rd over 3m3f in a competitive Grade 3 Handicap. We know his trainer can ready one for the big occasion and like Native River, who he beat in the National Hunt Chase last year, he will be doing his best work at the finish.
If we cast our eyes over the Irish Sea we will see a pretty strong challenge heading over to Prestbury Park. The best place to start is with dual runner up Djakadam trained by Willie Mullins. Although still only an 8yo this will be his 3rd visit to the Cheltenham Festival and his third consecutive Gold Cup. You could argue that his best is yet to come being only an 8yo and if he does have more improvement to come then he could finally get his head in front.
After making his seasonal debut in the John Durkan, winning it for a second time, Djakadam went in to the Lexus over Christmas a strong favourite. Things didn't go to plan though and he was disappointingly beaten into 3rd by Outlander who he had seen off previously in the John Durkan. There was no shame in that defeat as such but a victory was expected en route to a big Gold Cup effort.
As for the Lexus winner Outlander he did nothing but improve in 2016, which culminated in his biggest career win. Can he improve again to win a Gold Cup is the big question and I wouldn't rule it out the way he relished only his 2nd career start over 3 miles. Don Poli, who like Outlander is owned by Gigginstown and trained by Gordon Elliott, finished 2nd in Lexus which was a big return to form for him.
He has his doubters for being slow and just a plodder but with three Grade 1's to his name he seems to have done okay for a slow horse. Don Poli finished 3rd in last year’s Gold Cup, where he was given a questionable hold up ride and could have finished closer in the end. Like a few others he is a thorough stayer, and if placed a bit better then he could easily be amongst the places.
Of the other contenders, Empire Of Dirt, who won a handicap at last year’s festival, is of interest after his reappearance romp at Navan in the Troytown Chase. He is due to run in the Irish Gold Cup which will tell us plenty more about his chances at the top level. Recent Thyestes winner and ex Phillip Hobbs inmate Champagne West could be a lively outsider for new trainer Henry De Bromhead.
A 7 length victory off top weight in the competitive Gowran Handicap was visually impressive and it was also the race Djakadam won in 2015 before going on to finish 2nd in that years Gold Cup. Like a few others he has to step up on what he has done but does look to be improving.
To summarise Thistlecrack looks the one to beat despite his recent defeat on trials day at Cheltenham. He and jockey Tom Scudamore will have learned plenty that day and as long as it doesn't turn in to a slog then he will be very hard to beat. In behind there looks to be plenty of chances with Native River heading the opposition. It's hard to rule any of the above mentioned as they all hold solid claims but whether they are just playing for places only time will tell. One thing is for sure they will not make it easy for Thistlecrack to emulate Coneygree and win the race as a Novice.
Current Gold Cup Prices
Thistlecrack - 7/4
Cue Card - 7/1
Native River - 8/1
Outlander - 12/1
Djakadam - 14/1
Bristol De Mai - 16/1
Minella Rocco - 20/1
Don Poli - 20/1
Champagne West 33/1
Empire Of Dirt - 40/1