We are just under seven weeks away from the Cheltenham Festival and it’s a nice time of the year to try and unearth some ante-post value. Entries for the handicaps are obviously quite a bit off, but initial admissions are now being made for the Grade 1s.
Two weeks back, connections had to put forward horses for the Gold Cup, the Champion Chase and the Ryanair. The big hurdle races are also now in and novice entries will soon be made so, it’s time to get cracking on some ante-post pieces.
Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup ante-post preview
As everyone is well aware, Thistlecrack is now the horse to beat in the Gold Cup. Trained by a man who is currently ruining National Hunt racing, Colin Tizzard’s charge made a seamless transition from novice chase company to win the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day in astonishing fashion.
On goodish ground around a speed track, the son of Kayf Tara had too many gears for his four rivals. He will face a different test in the Gold Cup, however. As well as having to run an extra two-and-a-half furlongs, Thistlecrack will tackle Cheltenham’s New Course, a track designed to test stamina.
If the ground came up similar to what it was at Kempton, in March, the gelding will have to run for an extra 40+ seconds which equates to around three and a bit furlongs. How will he handle this more demanding test given his exuberance? It would be a slight concern for me.
Tom Scudamore will have an important role in utilising Thistlecrack’s energy efficiently. The 2016 World Hurdle winner has been ridden more forward in his races this season, small fields allowing Scudamore to keep things simple, but come Gold Cup day a switch to more reserved tactics should be employed, especially if the early fractions are quick.
There is little doubt Thistlecrack is the classiest horse in the race and he should be ridden so, particularly, with potential pace spoilers like Bristol De Mai, Many Clouds, Native River and Zabana in.
Nothing in the Gold Cup field can match his raw pace, but the classiest horse with the best gears often lose races and at a best-price of even money, he’s obviously not worth considering backing at the moment.
According to the betting, Native River, the favourite’s stable mate, is his biggest danger. Best-priced at 6/1, those odds look fair at this early stage with the Gold Cup test looking tailor-made for this relentless galloper.
Having made a lovely seasonal debut at Wetherby over hurdles in the West Yorkshire Hurdle, Native River then went on to win the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury and the Coral Welsh National at Chepstow.
I had him running to circa 160 in the Hennessy and I don’t think he needed to improve to beat a soon-to-be 12-year-old Raz De Maree in Wales. He didn’t jump as well as he can, but to win in the style he did off top-weight was a classy effort and I certainly respect his chances.
The two Tizzard runners take a sizeable chunk out of the market and are next followed by Cue Card, yet another Tizzard possible, Djakadam and Outlander.
The old boy Cue Card is now 11 and will find it tough to win against horses with youth on their side. While the case, he still has to be respected and could easily run into the frame. With connections last week confirming him for the race, his price (10/1) has detracted and is now no more than fair.
He also needs to bounce back from a slightly below par effort in the King George behind Thistlecrack. He was beaten over three lengths there, but on a sharp track that rode quicker due to the ground, it didn’t play to his strengths.
Some sloppy jumps and him having to navigate three and four wide at various stages didn’t help either, nor, being the only horse to take on the brilliant winner before the straight; those exertions softening him up for the remaining pack to close.
On softer ground around Cheltenham’s New Course, it wold suit better, but winning Gold Cups is a young man’s game and father time is as much a nemesis as the likes of Thistlecrack.
It feels like Djakadam (10/1) has been around nearly as long as Cue Card, but Willie Mullins’s inmate is still only eight! Rich Ricci’s horse has been second in the last two Gold Cups behind two very good winners in Coneygree and Don Cossack.
A reproduction of those efforts – one coming on soft, the other on good – would see him go very close. Softer ground would blunt the finishing kick of potential speedier types and I feel his chance would be helped by rain-softened sod on March 17.
Djakadam started this campaign in adequate style when beating Outlander readily in the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown. It came as a shock to see the aforementioned runner-up turn the tables just over two weeks later in the Lexus Chase.
A lack of an end-to-end gallop and a keen-going Djakadam contributed, the son of Saints Des Saints looking paceless turning for home before staying on strongly. The fact he still finished his race out despite being keen was a great sign and off proper Gold Cup fractions I could easily see him turning the form.
Outlander (14/1) surprised me in winning the Lexus, but the step up to three miles obviously helped him and given the pace, he deserves great credit for getting up to score given his early backward position. He’s a horse I’ve never really warmed to in terms of winning at the major festivals.
He’s obviously good and maybe he’s just an improved performer this season; the switch to Gordon Elliott’s yard unlocking further progress, but I do wonder how he’ll cope in a proper-strong run race?
Best of the Rest
Nigel Twiston-Davies’s Bristol De Mai (20/1 in a place) threw his hat into the Gold Cup ring with a brilliant performance in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock, bolting up hard on the bridle for a 22 lengths success.
Visually, it was devastating, but I’m finding it hard to believe he ran to a mark nearing the 170s – if you think the second home didn’t significantly run below par, which I don’t think he did.
He has earned his Gold Cup place, no doubt, but Haydock’s flat three miles where he could get into beautiful rhythm will be a far cry from Cheltenham’s New Course where pace pressure will come early. A young horse and just gone six, this test may also come a year too early in his career.
Six other horses remained that I thought were potentially worth backing at this stage. Three fall under ‘soft ground is key’ and three fall under ‘nice ground is key’. Predicating ground conditions this far out is impossible, but Bobs Worth’s Gold Cup (2013) aside, the race tends to be on nice terrain.
With that being the case and Donald Trump still not believing in Global Warming, it’s safer to assume we’ll get nice sod come March.
On soft ground, the likes of Don Poli (33/1) and Many Clouds (40/1) would be huge prices while, to a lesser degree, Minella Rocco (33/1) would be of interest. The aforementioned pair may also take the Grand National route meaning they come with risks attached.
Don Poli ran a credible third in last season’s Gold Cup on ground that was far too quick for his liking. Many Clouds was a brilliant Grand National winner and has a distinct touch of class while Minella Rocco is still an unknown in this sphere despite already being a Cheltenham Festival winner. We must remember, it was less than 12 months ago he beat Native River in the National Hunt Chase.
Just like the ‘soft ground is key’ horses, a now National Hunt stalwart figures among two potential horses in this ‘section’. At their current prices Sizing John (50/1), the experienced Road To Riches (50/1) and Zabana (40/1) are worth considering.
Of that trio, on current form, Sizing John looks the safest option on the back of an excellent Kinlock Brae success at Thurles. There was no Douvan to take on this time and on his first try over two-and-a-half miles on nice sod, he created a big impression, staying on strongly to win by 2 ½ lengths from Sub Lieutenant.
At the line, he was well on top of the runner up, a horse who on his previous effort finished third behind Djakadam and Outlander in the John Durkan. There is no doubt in my mind Sub Lieutenant ran his race and the form looks strong and reliable.
The one big question with Sizing John is if he will stay, but on his Kinlock Brae performance, on nice ground, I feel he has every chance of seeing out three miles, after that, who knows? His pedigree and laidback approach to life add further positives and Jessica Harrington’s inmate is live outsider, if connections decide to take this route.
Zabana is another Irish horse to consider for trainer Andrew Lynch. On his 2 lengths defeat of Outlander at last year’s Punchestown Festival, he looks a big price. His seasonal debut at Down Royal was a pipe opener before he won in the fog at Gowran Park.
His last run in the Lexus Chase behind Outlander was disappointing, but he just looked off his game, for whatever reason. Maybe they didn’t go quick enough with him and the fact he travelled wide throughout is also a potential negative. Despite his flat pedigree, the son of Halling looks like a proper stayer and the Gold Cup test could unlock further improvement.
Having finished third in the 2015 Gold Cup behind Coneygree and third in last season’s Ryanair behind Vautour, Noel Meade’s Road To Riches has the back class to run a big race. Things haven’t got swimmingly since however, a crunching fall last campaign at the Punchestown Festival maybe leaving its mark.
Then pulled up in the Galway Plate before a well-beaten second behind Ballycasey at Gowran Park, I thought he shaped OK in the Lexus when beaten around 17 lengths. He wasn’t fully primed that day and the hold-up tactics used may suggest connections are just trying to get his confidence back.
A better run in the Irish Gold Cup could see his odds tumble for March and while he is ten, he’s no pensioner. He clearly likes Cheltenham in the spring and with the Meade team in much better order this season, he could run big.
The Final Verdict
At the prices, despite being comfortably the best horse in the race, Thistlecrack has to be taken on at this juncture. His charming zest for life and voracious bravery to attack obstacles could see his petrol gauge starting to empty in a strong-run Gold Cup on the New Course, especially on ground with juice in it.
I have an awful lot of time for Native River and to be honest, before sitting down to do this piece, I felt he was criminally under-priced. But, having gone over his form, I now feel it’s fully justified. He is a huge threat to Thistlecrack, especially on, say, soft (good-to-soft) ground. His price is the problem, however.
Winning Gold Cups is a young man’s game and Cue Card will bid to become the first 11-year-old since Mandarin (1962) to score in the Blue Riband. I could easily see him hitting the frame, but he offers no value each-way.
Either does Outlander who could be outclassed in a strong-run contest. Bristol De Mai impressed me in winning the Peter Marsh, but I’m struggling to get to grips with that race and as a six-year-old, I can leave him.
Djakadam I too can leave. He’s another that has strong each-way claims, but the place part of the bet doesn’t offer value. So with the front six in the market all looking about right in terms of their price, it’s worth swinging the bat in this year’s Gold Cup.
Don Poli and Many Clouds are far too big in the betting, but their chance really relies on softish ground. The percentage call is to assume we’ll have nice terrain come March. This pair may also take in the Grand National instead of coming here.
Looking at the early entries for this year’s Irish Gold Cup, it may not be a race run to stretch stamina and with that in mind, it could set up nicely for SIZING JOHN. It will be a first try for Jessica Harrington’s inmate over three miles, but he has a great chance of seeing it out.
A laidback back attitude and a by a sire (Midnight Legend) laden in stamina, Sizing John’s visual impression in winning the Kinlock Brae suggests he is well worth a go. After that victory, his winning rider, Robbie Power, said:
“He is so laid-back. I knew I had plenty left. He has that bit of speed. When I gave him a squeeze, he really quickened up. I think he would stay any trip. He is so lazy. The Ryanair would look tailor-made for him”
Positive words about a potential step up in trip although negative news in terms of mentioning another Cheltenham target, the Ryanair Chase. Given his owners however, Alan and Ann Potts, a good run in the Irish Gold Cup would almost certainly secure his place at Cheltenham on March 17.
A good third in the 2015 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and second in last campaign’s Arkle, Sizing John’s festival form is another plus. He’s only had two runs this season, too, another positive as he’ll hopefully be fresher than most.
It’s a risky proposition, as he may not run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but at 50/1, I’m willingly to take a chance.
1pt each-way Sizing John @50/1 (Betfred, Bet Victor, Boylesports, StanJames, William Hill)