Had a tendon injury not prompted the early retirement of 2016 Gold Cup winner, Don Cossack, the 10-year-old gelding would have been fancied to retain his hard-earned crown at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival.
The heavy ante-post favourite, Thistlecrack, was withdrawn from the running with a tendon injury less than a month before the race, blowing the betting field wide open.
Attention has quickly swung towards his Colin Tizzard-trained stablemates, Cue Card and Native River, who lead the betting. The latter is in fine form after winning both the Hennessy Gold Cup and Welsh Grand National at the end of 2016.
The chestnut has won 3 of 4 races over the past two seasons where he has started as favourite, so his jockey, Richard Johnson, will be hoping the glare of the spotlight doesn’t cause a distraction.
Last year’s runner-up, Djakadam, has proven that he can certainly stay the distance. But with only one win in his past six outings, he could find himself well off the pace, even with Ruby Walsh at the reigns.
Young upstart, Sizing John, has rocketed into contention after claiming the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February and putting two-time winner of that race, Carlingford Lough, firmly in the shade in the process.
Discover which horses and jockeys have won the most recent runs of the most prestigious steeplechase in racing since the classic partnership of Kauto Star and Ruby Walsh in 2009.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup dates back to 1924, when Red Splash was ridden home by Dick Rees, one of only 7 Welsh jockeys to have crossed the line first. Of the 88 runnings of the Gold cup, exactly 50% of the winning riders have come from Ireland, and more than half the victorious horses were aged either 8 or 9.
Whilst the past doesn’t always predict the future, previous races suggest this year’s Gold Cup will be won by a 9-year-old horse with 9 characters in their name and a starting price of either 7/2, 7/1 or 8/1.
The closest match from the confirmed runners is:Outlander (9 years old, 9 character name, currently around 8/1 odds)
Grosvenor Sport’s expert team gives their opinion on who will come away with the honours at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
With no superstar in the field for this year’s running of the Champion Hurdle, I like the look of progressive grey PETIT MOUCHOIR, who has come on a bundle since leaving the Willie Mullins yard to work under the guidance of Henry de Bromhead.
Victory over Nichols Canyon at Leopardstown signaled his class, and he backed that up with victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle too. In the absence of Faugheen and Annie Power the French born raider’s odds have been trimmed, but he still provides value.
Davy Russell and WHISPER have struck up quite some chemistry since he took up the ride from Nico de Boinville, claiming first place at Cheltenham in his last two outings. Nicky Henderson is torn over whether to run the nine-year old in the JLT Novices Chase or the RSA Chase, and I have a hunch he’ll go for the latter on Wednesday. In form and happy with the track, Whisper looks an excellent each way choice for either race.
Owner Rich Ricci has been plagued by bad luck in the build-up, but LET’S DANCE should ensure he leaves Cheltenham with a smile on his face. The five-year-old mare has won four in a row over the jumps and she looks a livewire chance in Thursday’s Dawn Run Mare’s Novices Hurdle. Backed up by the deadly Mullins/Walsh combination I can see this French bred horse making quite a name for herself.
Native River ticks all the right boxes when it comes to sifting through the key trends in attempting to find a Gold Cup winner. Colin Tizzard’s charge has won three of his four starts since a narrow defeat at last year’s Festival in the National Hunt Chase, including superb successes in the Welsh Grand National and the Denman Chase this season. He’s got just enough miles on the clock, is the right age, has Cheltenham form, is a proven stayer and jumper, plus he’s shown he can win at the highest level. With Thistlecrack absent through injury, Cue Card could be the main danger after his sensational win in the Betfair Chase. However, there’s been no Gold Cup winner aged 11 or older for almost half a century. Therefore, Native River, at 11/4, is Nap material for this year’s renewal.
Djakadam won’t be top of many punters’ shortlists for this year’s Gold Cup but it’s impossible to crab Willie Mullins’ representative’s form in this race. Twice he’s finished as runner-up and, for whatever reason, he’s always been competitive in the Friday feature. His win in the John Durkan at Punchestown over a much shorter trip was impressive and, despite defeat to Outlander in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown, I’m expecting Djakadam to run at least a place. His price has shortened to 5/1 after the news that ante-post favourite Thistlecrack will miss the race. At that price though, he looks an each-way bet to nothing with Grosvenor Sport paying a quarter the odds the first three for place purposes.
Since 2003 there have been eight winning favourites of the Gold Cup, while in that time we’ve witnessed only one double-figure odds champion – Lord Windermere at 20/1 in 2014. If we are to see a big-priced runner claim the blue riband event at this year’s Festival, Don Poli, who was third last year, will almost certainly be on bettors’ radar. If the ground is in anyway testing then the Gigginstown House Stud-owned runner could be tremendous value at 16/1. But I was quite impressed with Champagne West’s win in the Thyestes Chase in January at Gowran Park. Trained by Henry de Bromhead, his jumping has improved out of all recognition this season and, while it would be a big ask for him to win the Gold Cup, I think backers might still get a run for their money at sizable odds.
News that front runner Thistlecrack is out of Gold Cup contention with a tendon injury has seen Colin Tizzard trained stablemate NATIVE RIVER installed as the new favourite at 11/4 for the Cheltenham Festival’s blue ribbon race.
The seven-year-old chestnut splits opinion - owner Garth Broom describes him as ‘marmite’ - but after becoming the first horse for 25 years to win the Welsh National in December carrying top weight, he’s a stubborn force to be reckoned with.
His last outing on soft ground at the Grade 2 Denham Chase at Newbury in February saw Aidan Coleman deputise for a flu-stricken Richard Johnson in the saddle but NATIVE RIVER still came home first to make it four wins in his last five races.
French grey BRISTOL DE MAI lost to Native River at Newbury this month but at 20/1 he’s still a decent each way bet. Trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, the six-year-old was a winner over 24 furlongs at Haydock in January in the Peter Marsh Chase.
One of the Gold Cup’s long shots is Irish hopeful ROAD TO RICHES, priced at 50/1. The Gigginstown House-owned nine-year-old turned heads winning the Lexus Chase in 2014 and was fifth last time out earlier this month in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown.
Thistlecrack’s injury-enforced absence is a cruel blow to trainer Colin Tizzard but he can still land the Cheltenham Gold Cup courtesy of NATIVE RIVER. The rapidly-improving seven-year-old is unbeaten in three chase outings this term, including the Hennessy and Welsh National, and this thorough stayer has never finished worse than second since fitted with cheekpieces.
The 11-year-old CUE CARD, another Colin Tizzard inmate, has already landed two Grade 1 events this season and was travelling strongly in last year’s Gold Cup when taking a tumble three out. Second to Thistlecrack in the King George on Boxing Day, he went one better at Ascot next time but horses aged ten or older are just one from 85 in this race in the past 20 years.
OUTLANDER had Don Poli and Djakadam behind him when arriving late to take the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas and will appreciate the likely strong pace. He’s won all four starts in fields of 12 or more runners and was still in with every chance when falling in the RSA Chase at this meeting last year.
BLAKLION’s principal target is the Grand National but RSA Chase winners have got a good recent record in the Gold Cup, with Bobs Worth doing the double in 2013 and 20-1 shot Lord Windermere repeating the trick the following year. Last year’s RSA certainly wasn’t the most competitive but Blaklion could be the value outsider if he takes in this race on his way to Aintree.
Unowhatimeantoharry can deliver the knockout blow and land the NAP in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham for rising star Harry Fry. This smooth-travelling improver is unbeaten at Cheltenham in four starts, including the Albert Bartlett at last year’s festival, whilst nine-year-olds have a good recent record in the race. He has landed the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, Long Walk at Ascot, and the Cleeve at Cheltenham this term, and is fully justified to be such a short price.
I was at Huntingdon back in mid-January on a very cold and blustery afternoon, when Divin Bere gave weight and a narrow beating to Triumph Hurdle contender Master Blue Eyes in the Chatteris Fen. The form could not have worked out any better. It was the French Import’s first start for Nicky Henderson after a near nine-month-absence, and the Fred Winter, a race his part-owner Simon Munir won with Une Artiste in 2012, was immediately mooted as his big race target. On that evidence alone he looks a big challenger in a very competitive race.
Neil Mulholland, a trainer I rate highly, is fast closing in on a century of winners for the current jumps season, and The Druids Nephew looks good value to land his second Ultima Handicap Chase. He was very impressive in winning this race in 2015, and may well have won the Grand National on his next start - he slipped on landing with a mile to go when travelling strongly in the lead. He’s been relatively lightly raced since that Aintree mishap, and is back down to his last winning handicap mark. It looks significant that his trainer hasn’t entered him for the Aintree showpiece this time around, and his Ascot run in December will have blown away the cobwebs.