The 2016 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup promises to be one of the finest renewals in many years and for once, the blue riband looks to be the showcase event of the entire Cheltenham Festival with a whole host of potential claims for a new name to be written into the history books with the defection of Coneygree after a setback ruled him out of a repeat bid.
Before last Saturday’s Betbright Trial Chase, last year’s runner up Djakadam was ante-post favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup after an impressive return to action in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown when slamming his stablemate Valseur Lido by 11 lengths. The son of Saint Des Saints was travelling well within himself on Saturday when meeting the first fence on the far side wrong and taking a crashing fall. Subsequently, the horse returned needing stitches for a superficial wound on his chest and now heads straight to the Gold Cup without another run. This has to be a concern with the horse having looked to be Willie Mullins’ best chance of achieving his maiden Gold Cup winner.
Djakadam’s replacement as favourite comes from the same connections in Vautour who looked the next potential superstar when demolishing the JLT Novices’ Chase field at last year’s Festival by 15 lengths, a performance considered to be one of the finest witnessed by a novice chaser in history.
Both starts this season have come right handed, his first effort at Ascot was workmanlike before stepping up to 3m for the first time in the King George where he looked the winner from a fair way out until Cue Card caught him in the dying strides. Whilst he stayed at Kempton and the likely improvement to come from returning to Cheltenham on better ground, the extra two and a half furlongs has to be a severe question mark as he needs to improve for the extra distance. Based on Kempton, he’s worth opposing.
Vautour’s King George conqueror Cue Card has been a revelation since the treatment of a trapped epiglottis and various other changes at Colin Tizzard’s yard. His Charlie Hall win at Wetherby when well treated at the weights looked a good comeback but he needed to improve plenty for that. That, he did. Betfair Chase day at Haydock was sublime when tanking along on the bridle and firmly putting old rival Silviniaco Conti in his place before producing another excellent effort to deny Vautour in the King George, ensuring the Jockey Club £1 million bonus is still up for grabs in March. It would be incredible were he to follow in Kauto Star’s footsteps and emotions will run high with the sad loss of part-owner Bob Bishop just after Christmas.
Don Cossack still has the title of the highest rated chaser in training but has shown his vulnerabilities on his last couple of starts by not travelling as well as he has in the past through his races, most notably in the King George when losing his position with a circuit to go. It’s to his credit that he was there with a fighting chance at the second last when falling under Bryan Cooper. His last win at Thurles over 2m4f was unspectacular when beating inferior opposition. If he is able to replicate his spring form from last season, he goes with a big chance but his Cheltenham record plus the fact he is untried at the distance raise enough question marks.
From one Don to another. Apart from a blip at Punchestown last season, Don Poli is unbeaten over fences which includes the RSA Chase when powering home up the hill to beat Southfield Theatre by 6 lengths. Also a winner of the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle at the Festival, his Cheltenham record and the fact he’s a strong stayer ensures his popularity with punters. However, the concerns must be whether he is able to lay up with a strong pace likely to be set by Smad Place or Vautour and what happens if he hits a flat spot like he did in the Lexus over Christmas.
The main Gigginstown trio is completed by last year’s third Road To Riches who showed no ill-effects of the race when winning easily at Clonmel in November before missing the Lexus due to a slight cold. He ran in the Irish Gold Cup at the weekend and finished in second place but it is worth noting the record of horses coming from this contest to the Cheltenham Gold Cup in recent seasons is poor.
Just like Cue Card, Smad Place is another who has been revitalised for trapped epiglottis treatment and his displays in the Hennessy at Newbury and in the recent Betbright Trial Chase were joys to behold with him doing his best impression of Desert Orchid winging his way over those fences. Alan King has finally committed to the Gold Cup and whilst he is likely to give a bold sight for a long way, you just question whether he is really good enough in a strong renewal to actually win the race.