Few races in recent memory are as highly anticipated as the Cheltenham Gold Cup this year and it is easy to see why when you take a brief look at the ante-post market. A number of star names and trainers are represented at the moment and with the Festival now less than eight weeks away, I thought it was high time I pinned my colours to a specific mast.
Famous Five All Have Their Strengths and Weaknesses
The injury to Coneygree earlier this season robbed us of the chance of seeing the Mark Bradstock horse bid to become the first horse since Best Mate to defend his Gold Cup crown but even taking that into account, we still have a potential line-up to saviour.
At the time of writing we have five horses rated by the bookmakers somewhere between 4/1 and 8/1 and we can only hope they all turn up as they really are five of the very highest quality.
Current ante-post jolly is Djakadam (4/1) who has plenty in his favour and is one of a number of potential darts at the race for Willie Mullins, who is continuing his quest for a first Gold Cup winner. Djakadam ran an absolute stormer in 2015 to chase Coneygree home in the race at the age of just six which was a remarkable effort by any standard.
It is hard to find too many holes in Djakadam given his age, his potential for improvement and his form so far this season which was very good when he won the John Durkan down at 2m4f with the minimum of fuss which means he has proven he has both speed and stamina. The slight worry about Djakadam would be that not too many horses get beaten in a Gold Cup before coming to win the race the following year and with the race in March potentially deeper than than the 2015 field, that would be a negative for his chances. He is open to a better run that last year but he may well need that and more to win.
Don Cossack (11/2) beat Djakadam by seven lengths in the Punchestown Gold Cup last season and that form alone means he has to be a danger to the favourite here. The Gordon Elliott trained horse looked bomb proof last spring when winning at Aintree and Punchestown and that form is the best in the field on paper and earned him the highest rating in training as a result.
The Gigginstown owned chaser has however been hit and miss this season with two easy wins pre-Christmas followed up with a fall in the King George and an unconvincing win in the Kinloch Brae Chase last time out. That one did come over an inadequate trip though and with better ground and further on his side, plus the potential addition of cheek-pieces, we should expect him to run very well in the Gold Cup as he searches for his first win at Prestbury Park.
The other 'Don' in the field is Don Poli who is another Willie Mullins dart and he has to be taken very seriously. A Cheltenham specialist who has won at the Festival for the past two years, Don Poli is an out and out stayer who will be galloping on at the end regardless of how the race pans out in March.
The bare form of Don Poli is perhaps not good enough to consider him a Gold Cup winner but there is a suspicion that he just does enough no matter the opposition, as he showed when wearing down First Lieutenant in the Lexus Chase over Christmas. A guaranteed stayer a solid jumper, if Don Poli can keep up with the speed set by the front runners, he is a leading contender at 6/1 with Paddy Power.
The King George was a classic on Boxing Day as we saw Cue Card (7/1) and Vautour (8/1) take each other on in an epic tussle but are either potential Gold Cup winners?
Vautour certainly stayed the trip on his first try over 3m but he was collared on the line by the brilliant Cue Card but nagging doubts do remain about both horses in terms of stamina over the extended Gold Cup trip.
Both are former Festival winners and both are class acts which has to put them in the frame and if either run we can be sure one or the other will be ridden very handy indeed in a bid to get the stayers like Don Poli out of their comfort zones. The feeling however is that Vautour is likely to be found out up the hill if he runs and whilst Cue Card is in the form of his life and is on the for triple crown, like Vautour he is unproven at the Gold Cup trip which would be a slight worry.
Anything At A Bigger Price?
Only one horse bigger than 8/1 has won the Gold Cup this century (Lord Windermere 20/1) which does point you away from the bigger priced horses but one or two are worth taking note of.
Road To Riches is one to consider on the basis of his 3rd place last year and a repeat of that run could see him outrun his odds of 14/1 although he might be stepped down to the Ryanair Chase and why would he beat Djakadam this year when he couldn't last year?
Holywell (33/1) is a decent spring horse but he has been poor of late with similar comments applying to him that applied for Road To Riches, whilst O'Faolains Boy (33/1) might have a squeak of a place if the ground came up bottomless but on all known form he would be out of his depth here. Smad Place (33/1) will run well but wasn't good enough last year and won't be good enough this time despite his stunning Hennessy win, with Valseur Lido perhaps another one who could out run his odds of 50/1 if he takes his chance, which is far from certain.
Poli The Selection
Punters looking for the winner will need to look no further than the top of the market with recent history suggesting that short priced horses are the one to follow. Each of the five has their weaknesses with some not even definite runners in the race but on balance and at the prices it has to be Don Poli.
The strict form of Don Poli might not scream Gold Cup winner but other than one blip last year at Punchestown which we can draw a line through, he always seems to pull it out of the bag. A guaranteed stayer and a strong jumper, Poli seems to love Cheltenham in the spring and the feeling is that he could be galloping past Djakadam and Cue Card on the run in to give Willie Mullins his first ever Gold Cup.