The first thing to say about this season’s Cheltenham Gold Cup is it’s going to be a thorough test in every department, given the prevalent heavy ground places a huge emphasis on stamina, and the guaranteed strong pace will put jumping under the microscope.
In 2015, the last time the ground was soft for a Gold Cup, Coneygree blasted off and strung a classy field out like washing without ever getting passed to land the sport’s blue ribband – one of my favourite days racing.
Coneygree was a brilliant jumper, a dour stayer and a relentless galloper, which are the qualities I look for in a soft ground Gold Cup.
Sizing John won it last year on good ground with a turn of foot, and I can’t see that being the recipe for success this time round.
Plodders won’t be able to go the gallop, so it’s bye bye to the chances of Definitly Red and Minella Rocco, who have never shown pace.
Horses whose best form is confined to good going are also no-hopers in this ground, so cheerio Tea For Two, Saphir Du Rheu and – perhaps harshly – King George-second Double Shuffle.
Doubtful stayers are also of no interest, and American has gone out like a light on his previous two starts, despite traveling beautifully.
I can’t see why Djakadam should be good enough to win his fourth go at the race, nor Outlander on his second attempt or Anibale Fly, Bachasson or Shantou Flyer on their first.
The most likely candidates to set the pace are the brilliant jumpers Might Bite and Native River.
The former did a Coneygree job on the RSA field last season on good ground whilst the latter seemed to abandon those same aggressive tactics, which served him so well when landing the Hennessy and Welsh Grand National, when contesting last year.
Native River has had a far easier season this year and you’d have to suspect connections will blame his prior exertions on last year’s disappointing third place, and return to front running duties to ensure this is a real test and play to his strengths.
I backed Native River last year and really fancy him to run better this time, however I’m not convinced that’ll be enough as it looked a fairly mediocre renewal in 2017.
Our Duke, the Irish National winner, gave weight and a beating to Wednesday’s runaway RSA Chase winner Presenting Percy and has been warmly backed since.
That looked a prep race for Presenting Percy, who was clearly laid out for Wednesday by a smaller trainer who needs racecourses to get his horses fully fit, so I’m not going to get carried away with the form and will instead scrutinise Our Duke’s messy jumping.
He simply cannot afford to make mistakes like he has done in recent starts when racing such sound jumping and thorough stayers like Native River and Might Bite, who will not be out-jumped and will be incredibly difficult to pass; 5/1 is too short.
Killultagh Vic is another whose jumping makes him impossible to have much confidence in, though he seems to tick all the other boxes and is of serious interest without appealing much at the current prices; whichever way I look at it, 10/1 is rotten.
His stablemate Total Recall is another whose name hasn’t been ruled out yet, and I do like him a lot.
He has an awful lot of improving to do to make Gold Cup class, though, and just like backing outsiders in the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe on the flat, it’s worth remembering this is the top table and you’d essentially be wagering an improver can become the best in the entire sport.
He has an engagement in the Grand National anyway, so this looks a roll of the dice and he can’t be backed with any confidence in the face of top-class form.
The list is getting small and one who’s not been scratched off is Road To Respect, whose connections are worried about the ground.
I’m less concerned given similar concerns were put forward for his half brother Road To Riches’s chances when he was a brilliant third to Coneygree in 2015, and I reckon this guy has better Irish staying chasing form this season thanks to his Christmas Chase win than his compatriots further up the market.
He goes at Cheltenham too, having won a handicap at last season’s festival, and his Christmas form was well advertised by Ryanair winner Balko Des Flos on Thursday.
He’s one of the season’s form horses and, quite simply, there’s a lot pointing towards a huge run to suggest 12/1 is a good price.
It’s not the doubts about the ground that put me off, nor is it his stamina; it’s that there’s another Irish stayer at a bigger price with form that’s of least his equal.
That horse is EDWULF for a rising star of the training ranks, Joseph O’Brien, son of the greatest trainer of them all, Aidan.
He – Joseph – is already a Cheltenham Festival winner with Ivanovich Gorbatov – a miracle in itself – and the word ‘miracle’ has featured prominently next to Edwulf’s name in recent weeks.
He probably should have won the National Hunt Chase at the festival last season before an extremely rare neurological issue surfaced mid race to stop him in his tracks and nearly cost him his life.
It’s a truly incredible story how he was saved by on-course vets and slowly built back from his deathbed into a racehorse capable of winning an Irish Gold Cup, which he unbelievably did last month.
I’ve watched that race back a few times and common consensus is Killultagh Vic was an unlucky loser having fallen at the last, but Edwulf was absolutely tanking through the final third of that race and his jumping was outstanding – the race didn’t fall apart and there was no fluke about it.
He was never losing any ground to the faller and wow did he get going when encouraged after the last.
He jumps, he travels, he stays, he goes on the ground, he’s a Grade 1 winner and the form equal of any staying chaser in Ireland, and he’s a great bet at 16/1.
Finally, MIGHT BITE, the precocious talent who – in my opinion – only has one kink in his armour: the horrible ground.
We’ve not seen the bottom of his stamina reserves yet and he appears pure class on all recent evidence – and class wins Gold Cups despite the ground.
I’m not entertaining any suggestion his King George form is poor because of the placed horses as he did it all so easily and jumped the last like he did the first; he had loads left in the tank.
We know he handles Cheltenham and we know he can take stayers out of their comfort zone with his natural galloping gear, so he ticks all my boxes and I just can’t ignore 9/2 for a horse that I firmly believe is the best in the race.
1pt win Might Bite @9/2 or best morning price, 15:30 Cheltenham, Friday
1pt each-way Edwulf @16/1 or best morning price, 15:30 Cheltenham, Friday (1,2,3,4, 1/5)