IT'S less than a month to go before we witness the strangest of all Cheltenham Festivals and while many of us have our horses to follow decided, there are a few yet to book their ticket to the main arena.
This year’s Gold Cup is arguably the most overshadowed and underappreciated race of the meeting. Honeysuckle has dominated Champion Hurdle headlines while novice chasers such as Energumene, Shishkin, Monkfish and Envoi Allen have enjoyed much of the limelight.
But what of the main event? Surely the Gold Cup warrants the most consideration?
Instead of speculating about which novice might prove to be Gold Cup caliber in the future, let’s instead focus on those that already dine at that illustrious top table.
Al Boum Photo is easily forgotten as we rarely see him in action but it’s difficult to see what horse can realistically deny him a momentous Gold Cup hat-trick.
Minella Indo has badly fluffed his lines, as did last year’s runner-up Santini. This week, Delta Work is joined Monalee on the injury list while Kemboy is more unlikely than likely to participate. Connections of Presenting Percy and Bristol De Mai have decided to sidestep Cheltenham in favor of the Aintree Grand National.
So who’s left to challenge the reigning champion? Well, A Plus Tard threw his hat in the ring with a strong staying performance in the Savills Chase, former winner Native River bounced back to form by dominating the Cotswold Chase at Sandown and Venetia Williams’ novice Royale Pagaille made it three wins in a row when carrying top weight in the Peter Marsh – winning by a jaw-dropping 16 lengths.
These three have established themselves as legitimate threats to Al Boum Photo but there are a few key names who will hope to join that short list after sitting some tough assignments this weekend.
Perhaps the most intriguing runner of the bunch is Nicky Henderson’s 2020 RSA winner Champ, who unusually makes his seasonal debut/Gold Cup prep-run in the two-mile Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on Sunday.
A last gasp winner under Barry Geraghty last season, Champ faces a stiff task having been off the track since March in a race that appears much shorter than his optimum distance. A Grade 2 winner at the track as a novice, Nicky Henderson identified the race as an opportunity for his horse to settle and sharpen up his jumping.
To make life tougher, he faces quality opponents such as Greaneteen and Sceau Royal so a winning return is far from guaranteed but having watched the RSA form take a hammering all season, his name isn’t on my Gold Cup radar unless he delivers something spectacular this Sunday.
The Denman Chase is 35 minutes earlier on the Newbury card and this race is the more conventional route for Gold Cup aspirations to be won and lost. Since the turn of the millennium, four horses have completed the Denman Chase/Gold Cup double – Kauto Star (2007), Denman (2008), Coneygree (2015) and Native River (2018).
Colin Tizzard has won this race on three occasions with the now 11yo Native River but this year he depends on 2020 Gold Cup third Lostintranslation. The yard has roared back to form in recent weeks having endured a torrid dry spell spanning back to last March.
Lostintranslation was one of the top novices of his generation, placing second to Defi Du Seuil in the JLT in 2019 before beating Topofthegame in the Mildmay at Aintree. Last season’s road to Cheltenham was far from smooth, having won Betfair Chase at Haydock he pulled up in the King George VI Chase a month later.
Following a breathing operation, the Tizzard camp got him back to finish third to Al Boum Photo, beaten just 1 ½ lengths. Now a 9yo, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he could improve that margin but considering he repeated his lifeless King George effort over Christmas, this is very much a retrieval mission.
Another on a trail to restore his reputation is Cyrname who faces his stablemate Master Tommytucker and Saint Calvados in tomorrow’s Ascot Chase. Britain’s highest rated chaser joined Lostintranslation in the doldrums at Kempton but regardless of tomorrow’s result, he is unlikely to have a place in the Gold Cup.
Cyrname is a tricky customer who excels in small fields and on right handed tracks, ingredients he’s unlike to encounter at Prestbury Park!