The pinnacle of the jumps racing season takes centre stage on Friday afternoon, with the latest renewal of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
This is the sport’s most prestigious and cherished prize, the one race every jockey, trainer and owner longs to win. It is the race every bumper horse that ever runs has the dream of ending up in, but it is the domain of the chosen few, and fewer still get the exhilarating feeling of coming up the Cheltenham hill and experiencing the elation of victory.
There are many wonderful chapters in Gold Cup history and this year threatens to match anything that has gone before.
Henderson’s bid for immortality
Nicky Henderson’s place in Cheltenham Festival history is assured. He is the most successful trainer in the meeting’s history and this week burst through the 60-winner barrier. He waited a long time to get his hands on the blue riband, but he did so in 2011 with Long Run, and prevailed against two years later with Bobs Worth.
Now he stands on the precipice of a Gold Cup hat-trick and, moreover, becoming the first trainer to win the crown jewels of Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup in one season following wins for Buveur D’air and Altior already this week.
He does so with ‘marmite’ horse Might Bite, a once quirky sort that retains his ability to divide opinion. It stems mostly from last year’s RSA Chase when he had the race sown up jumping the last fence, only to veer right, idle and almost grind himself to a standstill as stablemate Whisper went by.
It was a moment of madness but his constitution can’t be questioned given that he rallied so gamely to get back in front in the final stride and win the race. That surely demonstrated his stamina will not be found wanting over 3m2f in the Gold Cup.
Since then he has been faultless in his endeavours, with his most recent victory being in the King George at Kempton Boxing Day. Some have quibbled that the winning margin ought to have been more from the likes of Double Shuffle and Tea For Two, but Might Bite engaged in battle with Bristol De Mai almost from flagfall.
He drew the string from that rival, ensuring Nigel Twiston-Davies’ grey had nothing left to offer at four out as Nico de Boinville was still able to go and commandingly hit the front, while Might Bite typically did only what was needed on the run-in to win.
Henderson is a remarkable trainer of horses, but perhaps even more saliently, he is a truly gifted trainer of talented horses.
He is labelled cautious at times when they don’t run often but they are prepared meticulously at home in Lambourn, routinely bringing their absolute best to the racetrack when it is most demanded of them.
On that basis, Might Bite is my fancy to oblige in the Cheltenham Gold Cup at odd of 9/2 and rubberstamp the greatness of the Masters of Seven Barrows.
River in full flow
The big threat to Might Bite’s hopes might come from Colin Tizzard’s Native River, third in the race last season on the back of a long, gruelling season. He’d won the Hennessy at Newbury and the Welsh National at Chepstow in deep ground before taking in the Denman Chase en route to the Cotswolds. There is the chance those exertions had taken a toll.
Tizzard has plotted a vastly different path back to Cheltenham this term, with Native River reappearing only to successfully defend the Denman Chase last month and he looked impressive in doing so.
Will that leave him undercooked for this grand battle? Time will tell, but what we know for sure is that this dour stayer will keep going on any ground and could be a big threat to Might Bite should they engage in a war some way from the winning post.
Tizzard hasn’t enjoyed great success in this race, with Cue Card twice falling and the precocious Thistlecrack failing to even make it to the starting line. Native River is a player, though, he’ll need to defy the trends if he’s to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, having tried and failed previously, and is 4/1 to land the Gold Cup.
Respect the remainder
Three of the last seven favourites have won the Cheltenham Gold Cup while the front end of the market has proved the best place to shop for some considerable time.
Lord Windermere’s improbable 2014 win, when given a miraculously patient ride by Davy Russell, brought him glory at odds of 20/1. Every other Cheltenham Gold Cup winner this century has returned a single-figure starting price.
That said, there is plenty of merit in having an each-way play at a bigger price. This is no easy race to win and it can be cut-throat stuff so the outsiders can often run into the places without threatening victory.
Last season’s Irish Grand National winner Our Duke is currently 5/1 third-favourite as he bids to give Jessica Harrington and Robbie Power back-to-back wins. Sizing John might have brought them that distinction, but Our Duke has offered too many jumping errors this season and too much uncertainty to be a pick here.
He was back on track last time in the Red Mills Chase although only after surviving a shuddering mistake. He’s opposed despite Presenting Percy franking that form when romping home in the RSA Chase.
Killultagh Vic looks the leading contender for Willie Mullins and would have been the mount of Ruby Walsh but for his injury. The Closutton supremo has found this prize elusive and may do so again. At 28/1, however, Djakadam, with figures of 224 in the race, could easily mount another assault on the places given he’s still just nine-years-old.
Definitly Red is teetering on being a single-figure price. The Cotswold Chase winner is improved this season and Brian Ellison has been bullish although he might just be vulnerable in what will be a more competitive finish that when he scooted away from American on Trials Day.
Given his proximity to Might Bite at Kempton on Boxing Day, some will argue Double Shuffle is overpriced at 50/1. He has gone well at this meeting over shorter trips but is surely only going to play for places.
If a double-figure is lurking then it seems most likely to be Noel Meade’s improving seven-year-old Road To Respect, available at 12/1. He won the Leopardstown Christmas Chase, defeating Sizing John, and wisely side-stepped last month’s Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown where some of these rivals tore strips from each other. A fresh horse, he is equipped to go well.
For all new customers, ComeOn! are currently offering a £10 free bet – make sure you sign up!