The pinnacle, the blue ribbon of the Festival is of course the Gold Cup. The Grand National might be the most recognisable race in the public eye but the Gold Cup is the pinnacle, the greatest spectacle and test in National Hunt Racing.
Some of the greats may have missed out over the years, but generally the winner of the Gold Cup is the greatest of its generation, with the rollcall of winners reading like a history of jumpers, including Golden Miller, Arkle, Desert Orchid, Best Mate, Denman and Kauto Star.
We’re in for a fascinating renewal this year and in all likelihood a new champion to add to the hall of fame with 2016 winner Don Cossack now retired and Coneygree, victorious in 2015, missing out again with fitness problems. There are question marks surrounding all of the key protagonists with all capable of winning on their day, but all also showing vulnerability.
At the time of first sitting down to write this piece Thistlecrack was a short priced favourite and probably the most exciting contender, being a star hurdler ambitiously aimed at securing a Gold Cup in his novice year. A brilliant winner of the King George on Boxing Day there was talk of him being one of the greatest ever before being defeated next time out – there was a definite overreaction to his loss, he was just outstayed on ground softer than ideal by one of the toughest stayers around. He misses out with a tendon injury and is another of the big names who’ll be absent this year, but let’s hope he comes back next year as good as ever.
Despite the heartache of having Thistlecrack miss out on the Gold Cup, Colin Tizzard is still responsible for two of the leading counters in this year’s renewal with Native River the current favourite with bookies. Second in the four miler at the Festival last year, Native River went on to success at Aintree as a novice and has followed up this year with victories in the Hennessy, Welsh National and Denman Chase to become a general 5/2favourite. Undoubtedly a horse with talent and many of the attributes required to win a Gold Cup, he’ll stay all day, but I just have to question the value of his price. Looking back at the two big handicaps he has won this year, I feel they weren’t the strongest of renewals and in the Denman he only put three lengths between himself and a horse rated 151. I know he can only beat the horses put in front of him and he has done that well, but dissecting the form and those in behind him mean I just can’t accept that he is any kind of value at the prices available. He could well win and if bigger prices were available I’d consider getting behind him, but I need more convincing and would want at least double the price available to consider him.
The second of the Tizzard contenders is Cue Card. A horse who seems to have been around forever, bagging the Bumper in 2010 and the Ryanair in 2013, he was running well when falling in last year’s Gold Cup, with some believing he would have gone on to win if standing up – personally, I think that’s debatable. The long standing question surrounding him is whether he’ll get the Gold Cup trip and I don’t think that has been fully answered; brilliant in his time over three miles but I’m yet to be convinced he’ll stay up the hill. As an 11-year-old he’d be the oldest winner since 1969 and at times this year it has looked like age was catching up with him, but each time he’s come back out and won again to answer any critics. He has the experience others lack and has the class, but is he too old and will he stay?
Twice a runner-up in the Gold Cup, the current third favourite is Djakadam. The form of two Gold Cup places is up there with the best, in fact it’s probably the best form and he’s proven he can perform in a Gold Cup, which others haven’t. I understand the argument that he has already failed to win in two Gold Cup’s but we should remember he is still only an eight year old so has room for improvement remaining. His form this year has been a bit in and out with an impressive win followed up by a disappointment but that race may have come too soon and he is always better fresh. Where he would fall down for me is, he just doesn’t win that often and I’m not sure he really stays up the hill at Cheltenham, it just seems that little bit too far for him and he’s always likely to find one too good. Having said that, I think he’s a cert to finish in the frame.
One that is unlikely to have been at the top of anyone’s list of contenders at the beginning of the season, Outlander, has shown massive improvement this year to become a real contender. After finishing second to Djakadam in the John Durkan, he went one better to bag the Lexus over Christmas in convincing fashion, with the step up in trip looking to bring out the improvement seen. The best of his form now looks to be at three miles plus and despite having a couple of F’s next to his name in his career, including when travelling with a chance in the JLT last year, I think he ticks a lot of the boxes required and can be an ideal replacement for connections of Don Cossack. He’s ground versatile, still has room to improve and with some 10/1 still on offer looks a cracking bet.
After spending much of his early career chasing the shadow of Douvan, the step up in trip has allowed Sizing John to shine. The initial step up to two miles four and then three miles in the Irish Gold Cup were both met with victory and Sizing John looks like he could really be something, not as good as Douvan over two miles (but who is), but a real classy sort over further. For a horse with so little experience over extended trips there will always be questions over stamina and suitability to the Gold Cup trip, but he could be a real contender for Jessie Harrington, who has surprisingly never had a Gold Cup runner. At this point in time I think he might be more of a Ryanair horse and the Gold Cup might just be a year too early for him, but I really can’t blame connections for taking the chance. He might just need another year behind him but if he does stay the trip he’ll be bang there.
A horse with a real cult following, Don Poli is already a two-time Festival winner having bagged a Martin Pipe Hurdle and the RSA, as well as finishing third in the Gold Cup last year. He’s been available at big prices for most of the year, largely as a result of his moniker of ‘Don Slowly’, his performance in last year’s Gold Cup and a really disappointing first run of the season. However, I think there are excuses for the those two poor runs; he was given a poor ride in the Gold Cup when left out of the back without a chance and had recently changed stables when running no race first time out. Given a more positive ride than last year and the fact he is only eight years old so still has some room to progress, he isn’t without a chance. Don Poli is one of the few contenders who can prove he’ll relish a test of stamina and will stay all day, whilst his form this year isn’t that far off the other contenders. He’ll need to put in a season best to win but I can’t get away from the 16/1 available, which I think is great value.
Empire of Dirt is shorter than Don Poli with many bookmakers, but I think he’ll go for the Ryanair so won’t waste any time covering him here.
A contender who has only recently come into consideration after winning the Thyestes, Champagne West carried a big weight in that handicap to win very impressively and looks to have improved after moving across the Irish Sea to join Henry De Bromhead, but how much improvement is left in him? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he could improve enough to win in such an open looking Gold Cup, however, others do look to have a more solid look to their form. I wouldn’t be completely shocked should he make the frame but he’s just not for me on this occasion.
A slightly frustrating sort, at times Bristol De Mai has shown impressive form but has also looked awful on others. He couldn’t have won the Peter Marsh at Haydock any more impressively but has also thrown in some stinkers, including last time out. There may be excuses for some of his poor runs, including injury last time out, however, I’m just not sure his form actually stacks up to that much. His second in last year’s JLT hasn’t stood up to much, whilst those in behind at Haydock he should be beating, even if Otago Trail has since been out and won. With his best form on soft and questions over the quality of his form, I can’t see him being good enough here. Although we do have to remember he is only six years old, so this might not be his last crack at a Gold Cup especially if he can improve.
One of two contenders for the JP McManus and Jonjo O’Neill combination, at his best More of That won a Stayers’ Hurdle beating Annie Power in the process. Undoubtedly classy, when he actually shows it, More of That was favourite for the RSA last year but disappointed and has had his problems since, with breathing and bleeding. He seemed to have given up the game and was even entered in a cross country race but then had somewhat of a revival last time when putting in a seasons best, before unseating at the last, in the Irish Gold Cup. The chances of More of That very much depend on which version turns up on the day; at his best he’d not be without a chance and could have the class to go close, however, it would be a real risk in supporting such a frustrating sort.
The second of the JP and Jonjo contenders is Minella Rocco. Winner of the four miler last year, his form this year has a disappointing look to it with an unseat last time out preceded by a heavy fall at Aintree. However, his form last year in the run-up to the Festival wasn’t particularly great and he went on to win impressively after receiving good support in the market. Coming into the Festival with two letters next to his name can’t fill anyone with a great amount of confidence and there has to be massive uncertainty around whether he has progressed since last year, but the form of the four miler at last year’s Festival was the best of the novice chases and I can’t get away from that. He beat Native River that day, with something in hand in my view, and although Native River has clearly demonstrated progress I can’t get away from the fact that the beaten horse is as short as 5/2 whilst the winner is available at 25/1. He would be a big risk and it would be a bit of a second guess that he has progressed but if he could put in a clear round of jumping I could see him running a big race.
There are a number of others who are likely to line-up and with the withdrawal of Thistlecrack that could be increased as more are emboldened to take their chance without a standout contender in the line-up, but I won’t spend too long on these as they are unlikely to trouble the judges.
Smad Place is a former Hennessy winner and has shown he has class, however, he’s also shown he falls just short of the class required to win a Gold Cup and I can’t see that changing. Blacklion won the RSA last year and wasn’t that far behind Native River in the Hennessy, so he could be overpriced at 50/1 on that line and you’d have worse runners for your money, but he’s one I could see running well to finish fifth or sixth without troubling the main protagonists. Irish Cavalier won the Charlie Hall earlier this year, defeating Cue Card in the process, and finished fifth in the Gold Cup last year, so does have a little bit of class, but again I just can’t see him being good enough to run into the frame. We’ll also have a former winner in Lord Windermere running this year; he won what looks a substandard Gold Cup and hasn’t shown much since, so even the 100/1 for a former winner wouldn’t be tempting.
Until earlier in the week I would have been behind Thistlecrack for the win but his withdrawal has thrown this wide open. The current favourite Native River could well win but I cannot have him at the current prices; he is terrible value when you dissect the form. The other leading contenders in the betting also have questions to answer; despite showing form at the highest level I’m not convinced Cue Card or Djakadam will stay up the hill well enough and similar questions also hang over Sizing John, for whom I feel the Gold Cup may just come a year too early.
After eliminating the top four in the betting my focus turns to Outlander. The step-up in trip has brought out improvement and I think he is the kind of horse who will keep on improving with further experience over extended trips. I really like his profile, he’ll come here relatively fresh and will be ground versatile so ticks a lot of the boxes and will allow the same connections as Don Cossack to bag back-to-back renewals.
With such an open look to it, looking for a bit of each way value wouldn’t be the worst approach to take and there a couple who I am prepared to chance on this year. It may be blind faith with a horse I have a lot of love for, but I can’t get away from the view that Don Poli is overpriced. If we take away the poor ride he was given in the Gold Cup last year, when he still finished third, and the first run for Gordon Elliot, his form has a solid look to it and he will appreciate the extra test of the Gold Cup. He’s sure to stay and I’d much rather have him than the favourite based on the form, so the 16/1 on offer looks cracking value for each way backers.
The last selection, at a bigger price and much bigger risk is Minella Rocco. We’re having to take a lot for granted here and second guess if he has actually progressed but he did beat the current favourite at the Festival last year and I think the discrepancy in the prices is just that bit too much to ignore. It is a real risk but he does have potential to outrun his odds if putting in a clear round.
Outlander – win @ 10/1 (Betfair)
Don Poli – e/w @ 16/1 (1/4 odds Bet 365, NRNB)
Minella Rocco – e/w @ 25/1 (1/4 odds Bet 365, NRNB)