PART three of my Cheltenham Early Bird Special series is a preview of the centrepiece race of the whole week – the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
It's incredible that we are now just two weeks away from the start of the festival. I've had lots of thoughts about the big race but until now I haven't sat down to have a good look at all of the form and try to build an opinion on who the likely winner is and where the value might be.
The first thing to look at is the race itself. What does it demand from the horses? It's a chase which means it is run over fences and the fences at Cheltenham are a strong test of a horse's jumping ability. They're not as tricky as Aintree but you can't afford to be a sketchy jumper and make mistakes because you'll lose too much ground.
The race is run over 3 miles 2 furlongs and 70 yards. Whilst most of these horses are proven 3 mile chasers that extra two and a bit furlongs, especially coming up the hill at Cheltenham, can make a huge difference. The course itself at Cheltenham is undulating with lots of turns which can make it more challenging than flatter tracks with easier turns.
On top of all the above they go at an unrelenting gallop so there won't be any hiding place. You need a horse that can go a very quick pace but also keep that pace going right to the end. That's why it's the most coveted race in jumps racing.
There are some interesting statistics that need to be considered although I don't swear by every statistic as a method of selecting future winners. There are winners that buck the trends all the time so whilst they are a good indicator of what is required we don't need to treat them as gospel.
- 13 of the last 15 winners have been rated at 166 or higher coming into the race. That stat would exclude all but 7 of the 27 horses currently entered in the race.
- 14 of the last 15 winners started in the top 3 of the betting on the day. We will need to see who actually lines up on the day and how the market reacts nearer the time but at the present time the top 3 look likely to be Might Bite, Sizing John and Native River.
- From the last 22 winners, 20 of the them were aged between 7 years old and 9 years old so that suggests we are looking for a horse in that age bracket.
Might Bite is the King George winner from Kempton on Boxing Day which is the second most important Grade 1 chase of the season. He also won the RSA Novices chase at the festival last season in dramatic style and is a worthy favourite. My main concern with him in the past has been his erratic nature – he fell at the last fence at Kempton as a novice and then jinked out towards the stands after the last in the RSA before performing a miraculous recovery to win.
This season he has been much more professional but just slightly less impressive in his winning style. Although he won the King George he only beat Double Shuffle by a length and with all due respect to Double Shuffle that doesn't strike me as swashbuckling form.
Sizing John is last season's winner and if you go back and watch his form last season at Leopardstown, Cheltenham and Punchestown he would be a much shorter price here.
The problem is that he didn't look great at all last time out in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase and after the race he was found to be ‘clinically abnormal'. I have no idea what that means and he hasn't had a run since but is said to be in good shape at home and will have a gallop at an Irish racecourse somewhere before coming over the big race.
If the poor run at Christmas was an anomaly and he is as good as ever then he should be favourite but that is a nagging doubt in my mind.
Native River was third in the race last year after a very productive season where he won the big handicap at Newbury in November followed by a great performance in the Welsh Grand National in December carrying top weight. This season he has only had one run which was an easy win last week in the Denman Chase at Newbury for the second year in a row.
Presumably the idea is to give him an easier season to make sure that he peaks at 100% for the Gold Cup. He will certainly stay the distance but my concern is that he perhaps prefers softer ground than he is likely to get.
That said he only needs to find 2.5 lengths to catch Sizing John on last year's form so I can see why he is one of the favourites. I would be surprised if he wasn't placed and if there is a bit of rain he has as good a chance as anyone of winning it.
Our Duke had a stunning victory in the Irish Grand National in April last year and was talked about as a potential Gold Cup winner at that time. Since then he has been disappointing in two races at Down Royal and Leopardstown but bounced back with a good win this weekend at Gowran Park over Presenting Percy. That should set him up nicely for the big one but I would still be worried about his general level of form and whether it's good enough to win a Gold Cup.
Killultagh Vic has had injury problems over the past two years meaning that he has only actually run in three chases in total. He fell at the last fence in the Irish Gold Cup last time out when he looked like he was going very close to winning it.
There is no doubt that he has tons of potential and could be right up there as a top class chaser but his form is so sparse that it would be difficulty to recommend a bet on him at the current prices of around 10/1. If he drifts on the day and is more like a 16/1 or 20/1 shot there is an argument to be made for having a speculative bet on him but he comes with too many risks to be confident of a win.
Road To Respect has a rock solid form book without being spectacular. He won at the festival last year which is always a big bonus, albeit in a handicap chase rather than a graded race, and he has two wins and a second to his name this season. He has since been rested by Noel Meade in preparation for the festival and he looks to me like the one other than Might Bite who is the most obvious contender on this season's form.
Definitly Red is another prospect who made his claims more obvious by winning the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham last time out. That was another excellent performance from a horse who is assumed to be at his best on soft or heavy ground but his trainer Brian Ellison believes that the horse is just as suited by good ground and if that is the case he could be a very lively contender. My concern is whether or not they will go too quick for him in the Gold Cup and leave him with too much ground to make up in the final half furlong or so. He is a strong stayer though so if he stays in touch then I would fancy him to keep going up the hill as others fade. As an each way prospect at 20/1 he perhaps isn't a bad idea.
Minella Rocco was second in the race last year and has been very quiet since then but he may well be a horse that peaks in the spring time. I must admit to being massively frustrated by Jonjo O'Neill's style of training and targeting horses. I can never seem to work out when his horses will run to their best and he can run a horse 5 or 6 times before they suddenly burst back onto the stage with a win.
Minella Rocco is exactly that type and it wouldn't surprise me if he appeared at the festival again at the top of his game and went very close. His form at Cheltenham is excellent having won the 4 mile novice chase in 2016 as well as his 2nd in the Gold Cup last year. Equally though he might have a quiet run and then peak at Aintree for the Grand National. Your guess is as good as mine.
Total Recall is another one worthy of a specific mention as it seems that his owners now want to target him at the race. He has been a revelation since switching to the Willie Mullins yard, winning the Munster National and the Ladbrokes Trophy in some style before switching back to hurdles and winning a 16 runner handicap at the Dublin Racing Festival when he was sent off as an odds-on favourite.
Despite these wins I just think he has been a very well-handicapped horse and still has a bit more to go to reach this level. This is the big boys league and it remains to be seen whether he can step up.
Of the others in the running at this stage Outlander perhaps has a chance of getting a place on his general form and if Edwulf‘s shock win in Ireland last time out wasn't a flash in the pan then he has to look like value at a big price. If you think that Might Bite is the solid favourite then you must also surely think that Double Shuffle is overpriced at 40/1 given that he came within a length of Might Bite at Kempton last time out.
I must admit that I'm not absolutely convinced by Might Bite although I would agree that he should be the clear favourite. He has won at the festival and won the King George and come the day of the race I might even have a bet on him if he drifts slightly in the market.
Right now though I am more tempted to look for some value and in doing that I am going to put my trust in Brian Ellison who says that DEFINITLY RED will be just as good on better ground. The horse is now rated right up with the best of the other contenders and you also have the added bonus that if the rain comes his price will probably come in quite considerably. He looks too big just now and is the value bet for me as things stand.
- Definitly Red – 2 points each way at 20-1 with Paddy Power (non-runner no bet)