Twenty-seven horses remain in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase on Friday 16th March, all chasing National Hunt’s Holy Grail. First prize of £355,938 will go the way of the winner, but this race is about so much more. The Gold Cup is THE race the vast majority of owners, trainers and jockeys want to win.
Run over 3m 2 ½f on Cheltenham’s New Course, like most Championship races, this is a test of class, stamina, speed and heart. This year’s field will bid to join true great racing names like Kauto Star, Denman, Imperial Commander, Long Run and Don Cossack, five stars to taste victory in the last ten years.
As the Festival moves ever closer, we assess this year’s field from an ante-post perspective.
Cheltenham Gold Cup ante-post preview
Quite rightly, last year’s outstanding RSA winner, Might Bite (4/1) is current ante-post favourite and it’s hard to see that changing unless we get soft ground. Might Bite’s victory at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival can only be described as brilliantly insane.
Having lead his field for most of the contest, he was 15 lengths clear coming to the second last. He looked brilliant. Having jumped the remaining two fences, the son of Scorpion then veered sharply to his right, put the brakes on and started to idle badly.
Moments later he was a half-length down on Whisper, but somehow managed to rally and claw back victory. Insane. To do as such, meant there was a fair bit of petrol left in the tank. It was an amazing performance. From here, Aintree was next, where a more straight-forward win saw him beat Whisper readily.
This season Nicky Henderson’s horse has only run twice, winning a Listed Intermediate Chase at Sandown with ease from Frodon before going on to win the King George VI Chase at Kempton. The form of the King George is a little tough to weigh up, and differing opinions can easily be made and well respected.
My gut feeling immediately after the race, with Bristol De Mai, Fox Norton and Whisper running well below par, was it was form to be weary of. That may well still be the case going forward as the race has yet to be truly tested.
In the end, I had Might Bite running to around 165 in victory – a very good number, especially, if like me, you believe he idled badly up the straight and wasn’t in peak condition. Come March, on hopefully even quicker ground, there is no reason to say he can’t improve on that figure.
He jumps fine, travels strongly and is as classy a horse in the field.
Depending on which bookmaker you bet with, there isn’t much between last year’s Gold Cup hero Sizing John (6/1), and year’s third, Native River.
One of the great ironies of last year’s Festival was Sizing John stepping out of the shadow of Douvan. The former is now a Gold Cup winner while the latter is yet to taste victory in a Championship Cheltenham race, on top of his Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Arkle successes.
Seven times Douvan and Sizing John had clashed over the years and seven times Douvan had Alan Potts’s number. But while Douvan fluffed his lines through injury on Wednesday in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, Sizing John immediately came out of his old foe’s shadow in winning the Holy Grail. It was now Sizing John 8 -vs-7 Douvan.
His smooth and ready success over Minella Rocco, Native River and Djakadam was done in the style of a Gold Cup winner throwing back to the Kauto Star days. It was just pure class that won him the race. Travelling strongly, jumping economically and quickening were the hallmarks of his near 3 lengths victory.
He showed he could battle when going on to win at Punchestown five weeks later before being put away for the current campaign. This season started in tremendous fashion with the son of Midnight Legend beating Djakadam by 7 lengths in the Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase.
Eighteen days later he would flop badly at Christmas however, trailing in 32 lengths behind Road To Respect in the Grade 1 Leopardstown Christmas Chase. It was an awful run, there is no getting away from that, but I’d be confident it was due to his John Durkan effort coming too soon in a top-level race. That Punchestown race had clearly taken plenty out of him.
Not too long after the Christmas disappointment, Jessica Harrington said her stable star would go straight to the Gold Cup after being freshened up. Given how lacklustre he was over the Festive period, this approach could well pay dividends and be a priceless piece of management.
A similar fresh campaign has been given to Native River (13/2) this season. While Sizing John has run twice, this eight-year-old has only had the one start. Colin Tizzard’s relentless galloper had a massive 2016/17 campaign, winning three races including the Hennessy and the Welsh Grand National.
He was unlucky not finish second in the Gold Cup last year, just being chinned late having made much of the running at a decent pace. He was no match for Sizing John in the 2018 renewal, but there is every chance he can get closer and maybe even reverse the form.
The son of Indian River took a big step to achieving that when winning the Grade 2 Denman Chase for the second successive season on his seasonal debut. OK, he beat a non-stayer in Cloudy Dream and a nowhere near fit Saphir Du Rhea back in third, but it was done by 12 and 24 lengths, respectively.
More importantly, it was good to see him travel well, jump nicely, move as fluently as ever, and find off the bridle – the further he went, the better he looked, although that’s understandable in beating a non-stayer.
With age on his side, coming in fresh and looking as good as ever, he must be respected.
With course and Festival form, Road To Respect (10/1) will surely be on most people’s shortlists? While he has yet to prove as classy as fellow Irish peer Sizing John, the fact the son of Gamut comes here at the top of his game shouldn’t be underestimated.
After last season’s brilliant 6 lengths victory in Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase, Noel Meade’s stable star has only tasted defeat once, when he was a gallant second to Outlander in the JNwine.com Champion Chase a Down Royal.
In the interim, he has defeated such names as Yorkhill (where he was clearly a fortunate winner), Sub Lieutenant, Minella Rocco, Zabana and also revenged his defeat over Outlander, when winning the Grade 1 Leopardstown Christmas Chase.
Returning to a left-handed track and getting on some nicer ground saw him produce a career best at Christmas when beating my Ryanair fancy Balko Des Flos and Leopardstown lover Outlander, wearing a first-time hood.
The Gigginstown House Stud-owned gelding has had a modern-day Gold Cup preparation which will see him come to Cheltenham fresh. His record suggests that’s no negative so this seven-year-old, from the immediate family of a Gold Cup third in Road To Riches, looks to hold extremely solid claims.
Finally, of those horses to the fore in the betting, Our Duke (9/1) is the last to get a significant mention. He’s another from the Jessica Harrington stable, and another eight-year-old – like Sizing John. Amazingly, well, for me anyway.
He was a Grade 1-winning novice chaser last season, his victory in the Neville Hotels Novice Chase looking decent form now. So too is his second to the classy but fragile Disko in the Grade 1 Flogas Novice Chase over an inadequate trip, but the highlight was obviously his 14 lengths destruction job of the 2017 Irish Grand National field.
That was a huge display, so good, he would finish the campaign officially rated a pound less than his stablemate and Gold Cup winner, Sizing John, as a novice. Some feat! This campaign started in disaster however, when he was well-beaten behind Outlander and Road To Respect at Down Royal; a poor post-race scope and therefore illness to blame.
Surgery on his back would follow before he made a highly-encouraging and belated return to the fray in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, where a bad peck two out cost him dearly. At the time, it looked like he was getting slightly outpaced, but whatever your opinion on that, he certainly shaped better than the 16 lengths beaten.
That step in the right direction was the catalyst for Grade 2 success over Presenting Percy in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park next time out. This came on his favoured soft ground (officially heavy), and giving the current RSA favourite 7lb and a beating is no mean feat on paper. It at least sees him firmly back on the right path.
The horse most prominent in the betting I want to be against at this time is Killultagh Vic (10/1). First and foremost, that looks an extremely skinny price, for several reasons. One, his form doesn’t look good enough. Two, he’s a horse who has had serious injury problems in the past. Three, I’m not sure he jumps well enough, and four, I’d be worried about him staying.
Definitly Red (16/1) will have no issue with the trip, but on decent ground, the race may well be over by the time he crosses the line. So much of his form has come on proper soft ground, I worry will he be taken out of his comfort zone on a faster surface? He also looks short on class in a competitive Gold Cup.
This year’s Blue Riband looks a stronger race than the 2017 running, meaning Minella Rocco (20/1) may struggle to repeat last year’s second. Having been held-up in the race, he possibly ran on past beaten horses and was ultimately flattered. The fact he struggles for consistency is another concern. I’ve never really warmed to him despite knowing, on his day, he’s a class individual.
The Willie Mullins pair of Djakadam (33/1) and Total Recall (16/1) are avoidable too at this juncture. The former is a top-class horse on his day, despite lacking the desired victories on his CV. The plus point is he appears to save his best efforts for this very race, but he comes into this year’s renewal on the back of a desperate run – by his standards – in the Irish Gold Cup, where he looked 20lb below his best. Maybe this was down to the lacklustre gallop in which he set.?
Mullins’s Ladbrokes Trophy winner Total Recall has been in great order this season, winning all three races, but I think he needs to improve another stone to win here, and I just don’t feel he has that in the locker. He’s a horse who can be keen and he won’t get away with that in this company.
Similar comments apply to yet another Closutton inmate in Bachasson (50/1), but he’s a horse who potentially has the scope to improve, although a stone is maybe asking a bit much. He has looked a different horse this season – his two wins at Thurles and Tramore coming in great style. While the case, this would be a significant step up in class over an unknown trip. He’s worth bearing in mind later in the season and even next year, however; he’s a horse on the right path.
So too is the miracle horse, Edwulf (25/1), who looks drastically overpriced compared to Killultagh Vic. His victory in the Irish Gold Cup at nicely backed 33/1 will no doubt be among the highlights of this season given his miraculous near-death recovery at last season’s Festival, but I’m just not sure he’s good enough, yet. He may improve again for better ground, but this contest could come as a shock to the system compared to the slowly-run Grade 1 he won last time out.
The one horse that looks overpriced with top-class recent form in the bag and appears to be on an upward curve is Double Shuffle (40/1). His close-up presence behind Might Bite in the King George originally saw me question the form, but having gone over it all again, I don’t think there was any fluke about the effort, and the form will (hopefully) stand up.
OK, he must go and run to a similar level once more to solidify proof of that statement, and there is a chance Kempton is his ideal track, but given he’s an eight-year-old with a classy enough pedigree with few miles on the clock and is still relatively unexposed over three miles plus, there is potential for this scenario to play out.
There is even an argument that his King George effort could be marked up given how wide he was for the near entire duration of the race. There is also a chance he is flattered to get as close to Might Bite, but the price discrepancy is too big given 1 length separated them at the line.
Finally, speaking of wide trips in top-class races, Saphir Du Rheu (100/1) got a pretty average ride in last term’s Gold Cup when only beaten 6 lengths by Sizing John, and just three behind the likes of Minella Rocco, Native River and Djakadam. He was also closer to the good gallop than most. On this run alone, he looks criminally overpriced.
Paul Nicholls’s inmate has a reputation of being a nearly horse – and that’s fair enough – after his trainer built him up to be his stable star many seasons ago. Success didn’t come early, but to be fair to the grey 2016/17 saw him put down some solid foundations for further progress.
He’s only a nine-year-old and he comes into the Festival on the back of a well-beaten effort behind Native River in the Denman Chase, but he shaped far, far, far better than the distance beaten on his first run back from injury.
The Final Verdict
A superbly competitive Gold Cup to look forward to this year, should all the main protagonists make March 16th. So many horses are coming into the race fresh which potentially reinforces competition. A fresh field of horses has the potential to see many run their races.
This is especially the case of those to the fore in the betting. Might Bite, Native River, Sizing John and Road To Respect, granted decent conditions, will have few excuses on the big day.
In any race, the ground will prove vital, and this Gold Cup is no different. Should we encounter a similar surface to last term’s renewal, I’d be against Our Duke. I have no doubt he’s a classy horse, but I just have a small suspicion slowish sod gets the very best out of him and he could prove vulnerable on good going at this level. His tough prep on heavy ground also makes him stand out negatively from the aforementioned fresh crowd.
At the same time, while against him on a quick surface, a soft ground running would make him and Native River the ones to beat, on form.
Working on the basis of decent going, I’m not sure any of those to the fore in the market will shorten appreciatively. On ground similar to last year, I’d be surprised if one of Might Bite, Native River, Sizing John or Road To Respect don’t win. Hardly a bold statement!
We already know Sizing John has the “X-Factor” to win a Gold Cup, and for me, there’s only one other horse in this field with that, and that’s Might Bite. If we get good ground, he’ll go very close, but that’s a sizeable ‘if’ given we are over two weeks away, especially when you consider the current Beast from the East passing through the UK.
That rhetoric also means I don’t see any particular value in playing Native River, Sizing John and Road To Respect. Native River and Sizing John have proved their worth in a Gold Cup, and also proved their stamina. If there is one variable Road To Respect could just fall short on, it’s staying. The better the ground, the better his chance – that old throwaway line applies to him.
So, at this stage, DOUBLE SHUFFLE and SAPHIR DU RHEU look the value bets. The former will need decent ground to see out the trip, but given he’s shown a similar level of ability to Road To Respect, I’d much rather chance him at four times the price, given both have identical potential stamina issues. Oddly enough, both also wear hoods while racing.
Saphir Du Rheu will be at home on most going, but he’ll need a much cannier ride to improve on last season’s gallant fifth. Hopefully the Nicholls team go out and ride him like he can win, and just creep their way round down the inner.
Both are bold shouts, I appreciate that, but my line of thinking is this; I can back maybe two horses to the front of the betting at fairish prices to win OR I can take a bolder each-way value approach on horses with top-class efforts in the hope of one hitting the frame and getting a similar return.
We’ll see how it all plays out. Good luck!
1pt each-way Double Shuffle @40/1 (bet365, Coral, Sky Bet, Unibet – all NRNB)
1pt each-way Saphir Du Rheu @100/1 (Bet Victor), 80/1 (Coral, William Hill – both NRNB)