2pts win Native River @5/1, 15:30 Cheltenham, Friday

The Cheltenham Gold Cup, jump racing’s blue ribband, takes centre stage on St Patrick’s Day this Friday without two of the season’s staying chasing stars in King George and World Hurdle winner Thistlecrack and ex-Grand National hero Many Clouds.

The two locked horns in a titanic battle on trials day with Many Clouds brilliantly beating the supposedly unbeatable force from Dorset, before tragically losing his life in the aftermath.

Fortunately Thistlecrack lives on but he’s injured for the rest of this season, whilst last year’s Gold Cup hero Don Cossack has been retired after a setback in his own recovery from injury and 2015 winner Coneygree again misses out.

What remains is a wide-open renewal without a hardened favourite, but dual-runner-up Djakadam has in recent days made that position his own after his jockey and trainer notched a four-timer on Cheltenham’s Thursday card.

He is, however, the first horse I’m ruling out as there are so many negatives looming over his claims.

He’s definitely a better horse on softer ground; he’s a very short price at 3/1; he has fallen twice in four visits to Cheltenham; he was a beaten favourite in the Lexus at Christmas; his trainer has never won the race.

Okay, the last comment was a joke – a bad one at that – but I’m not interested in his claims given he has so much ground to make up on Cue Card, who looked set to motor past him before falling in last year’s renewal and soundly thumped him when given a second chance at Aintree.

Like last year, and many years before in Grade 1 chases, the obvious and easy reason to oppose Cue Card is his age of 11.

Rather than doubt his age, I’d point to his patchy recent record which reads four defeats in his last seven starts, and you’ve got to take him on at 5/1 given the way he struggled in the King George behind Thistlecrack.

He’d be one of the most popular winners since… well, Sprinter Sacre did the impossible by reclaiming his Champion Chase crown last season, but he’d bring the house down nonetheless.

I’ll take this opportunity to rule out Tea For Two, Saphir Du Rheu, Irish Cavalier and Smad Place from the domestic challenge, and Champagne West from the Irish, as, forgetting Lord Windermere-gate in 2014, they’re all a long way short of what’s required to win a Gold Cup and would have to improve massively to be competitive.

I’m not buying Lexus winner Outlander’s claims either, as he’s a dodgy jumper who’s unproven at the Gold Cup trip, and the horse he beat in second at Leopardstown, the absent-through-injury Don Poli, is a decent enough yardstick and exposed as short of Gold Cup class.

Of the Irish challenge the one I like the most is Sizing John, who is again being supported in the market like he was before he won the Irish Gold Cup, which is a good sign.

Sub Lieutenant running a blinder in Thursday’s Ryanair franked his form, but in the same race the horse that was narrowly behind him at Leopardstown, Empire Of Dirt, was quite disappointing.

Having spent his career watching Douvan sprint away from him over two miles, he’s still unexposed at staying trips and has to prove his stamina in a gruelling Gold Cup over three-miles-two.

Now any value in his price has gone I’m hesitant to pay to find out if he’ll get home, and that Irish Gold Cup run was run slowly enough to not doubt it, with his pace probably ending up decisive.

I’m confident there will be a domestic Gold Cup winner this season but the good ground might have blunted Nigel Twiston-Davies’s Bristol De Mai’s chance, as he seems best with some cut.

He’s also got patchy form and would be a very young winner aged six – the last horse to achieve the feat at his age in recent memory was Long Run, who had already won the King George that season so had far stronger credentials.

The form of his JLT-second to Black Hercules at last season is not working out with all other participants failing to make any mark in Grade 1s this year, so his 22-length handicap demolition job at the flat Haydock is the best he can offer.

He was allowed to dictate his own pace that race, which seems key to his chances, so with his subsequent Newbury conqueror NATIVE RIVER likely to dictate the fractions from the front, it’s hard to see the race being run to his liking.

Through process of elimination we have to fancy Native River’s chances here, as he so impressively won the Hennessy and Welsh National this season under top-weight and landed the Grade 1 Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree last spring.

Spring ground is to his liking and he’s improved with every run this season, particularly in the jumping department.

He stays all day and then some – and despite some pundits arguing he prefers flat tracks, he was a good second in last year’s four-miler at The Festival so clearly acts well enough around Cheltenham.

His conqueror from that race, Minella Rocco, takes his chance here too, but it’d be unwise to underestimate the importance of having a class jockey in such an amateur riders’ race as the winner had the invaluable services of Derek O’Connor in the saddle, which is worth many lengths.

Minella Rocco has been tipped twice here this season and has fallen and unseated in both, so we are in no hurry to give him a third chance, even at a price.

A chance he has, though, back on ground he likes and at a track he obviously likes too.

His jumping just shouldn’t be good enough to win a Gold Cup, but if he does somehow get a clear round I’d be nervous seeing him in contention at the finish.

The ace up Native River’s sleeve is he stays all day – which can’t be said of many of the field – and he can really pour it on from the front from a long way out if necessary, safe in the knowledge he can maintain the gallop.

Un De Sceaux, Might Bite, Willoughby Court; they’re all front runners who have scooped Grade 1s this week to add to the long list of Festival winners who have pulled off the same trick in the past.

Sound-jumping front runners who stay are the most formidable forces in the National Hunt game, and for that reason I am confidently putting Native River forward as your 2017 Gold Cup winner.

The only horse left unmentioned is Jonjo O’Neil’s 2014 World Hurdle winner More Of That, who offered a glimmer of hope of a revival in form when falling at the last when going well behind Sizing John in the Irish Gold Cup.

Whilst I doubt he’d have won that race as Sizing John is almost certainly faster, over a further two furlongs at his favourite course of Cheltenham I suspect we’d see a different result.

He’s apparently flying at home and has been well supported this week – halving from 20/1 to 10/1 in places – but it’d be a real leap of faith to back him at the revised prices given all known form since winning that World Hurdle.

He’s another that’s feared, but it’s a typically competitive Gold Cup after all and Native River is the horse who ticks the most boxes.

2pts win Native River @5/1, 15:30 Cheltenham, Friday

It’s Gold Cup day and bookmakers will be falling over themselves to get your custom, so wait for around 10am on the day of the race to find the best prices.

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