The Cheltenham Gold Cup is now just over four weeks away and with that in mind, we have taken a closer look at the festival feature. Sean Raymond (@seanraymond) dissects the ante-post list...
Our ante-post series cranks up a notch this week with the Cheltenham Festival now less than a month away, and that means the Gold Cup is the latest race under our microscope.
The blue-riband race of the National Hunt season, the Gold Cup is always a race to saviour, and that is certainly the case again with a reasonably open market for punters to sink their teeth into. We break down all of the fancied horses starting with the Tizzard domination at the head of the list...
Tizzard Trio Look To Have The Race Between Them
Dorset trainer Colin Tizzard has enjoyed a stunning rise to the top of the training ranks over the past couple of years and that will culminate on March 17th this season.
The Dorset handler will, touch wood, head to Prestbury Park with the top three market favourites for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and it must be a dream for the team at Venn Farm.
All three are top class horses but it is Thistlecrack who continues to attract the lion share of the attention. The World Hurdle hero from last season has taken to fences well during his novice season, and he will be bidding to emulate Coneygree by winning the Gold Cup in his first season as a chaser.
The 9YO has a remarkable engine, as he showed when winning the King George in emphatic style on Boxing Day, and on pure quality alone he is the one to beat in the big race. He goes into the Festival rated 171 and in terms of class, he is ahead of this field and deserves to be the favourite.
He did however taste defeat last time out as the ill-fated Many Clouds out-battled him up the Cheltenham hill to win the Cotswold Chase, and that performance has proven he is far from invincible. His jumping does remain a slight worry, especially when he is put under pressure in a big field, and he wouldn't want the ground too soft with his stamina likely to be stretched to its limit.
Thistlecrack certainly has his flaws but he remains one of the most exciting horses in training, and as such is just 7/4 with Paddy Power to claim the win.
The biggest challenge to Thistlecrack is likely to come from within as Native River and Cue Card are his nearest market rivals.
Native River (9/2) really does tick the boxes at the moment with his progression this season hard to ignore. His Hennessy and Welsh National wins might not have been anything to write home about from a form point of view but it is some feat to do that famous double.
His stock rose further when he swatted away Le Mercurey and Bristol De Mai recently to win the Denman Chase, and although he still needs more to win a Gold Cup, he is going the right way. A guaranteed stayer, Native River has Cheltenham experience on his CV and has the ability to get Thistlecrack out of his comfort zone.
CUE CARD started the 2016 Gold Cup as the favourite but he is something of a forgotten horses heading into this year's renewal. He looked as good as ever when beating Coneygree to win the Befair Chase before he had his colours lowered by Thistlecrack in the King George.
Cue Card paid the price at Kempton for trying to go with Thistlecrack around the home bend which saw him tire late on, but we can expect him to be ridden differently next month. History suggests that Cue Card will struggle to win a Gold Cup at 11 but he shouldn't be underestimated by each-way punters, with his Cheltenham form and consistency difficult to ignore at 8/1 with Paddy Power.
Best of the Rest...
Colin Tizzard certainly goes into the Gold Cup with pocket aces but there are some other horses to consider before going all-in with your bet.
Djakadam (7/1) is remarkably still only eight and he has to come into the thoughts of punters once again. The Willie Mullins trained chaser ran no race in the Lexus over Christmas but he has been 2nd in the last two Gold Cups, and is sure to be in tip top form once again for the big race.
His form this season is a slight worry and not many horses win the Gold Cup at the 3rd time of asking so he is no more than an each-way play at best.
Outlander (12/1) won that aforementioned Lexus Chase, and is an improver for Gigginstown as they look to claim the Festival feature for the 2nd year on the bounce. That Lexus form is suspect though with most of them finishing in a heap and he shouldn't be good enough at this level.
Sizing John (14/1) is a class act, as he has shown behind Douvan so many times, and he appears to have enjoyed the step up in trip of late. He won the Kinloch Brae over 2m4f, before claiming the Irish Gold Cup on his first start over 3m
The Jessie Harrington trained chaser held off Empire Of Dirt (20/1) in that big race and he is certainly to be respected. Once again though, the form of that race in comparison to the British contenders does looks suspect, and although he is a class animal, you feel he would be better suited to the Ryanair Chase.
Don Poli (25/1) would have a slight chance if the ground came up soft but is hard to back with any confidence, whilst Minella Rocco (33/1) has oodles of talent but is best watched given he has fallen on his last two starts.
Card Still An Ace?
Colin Tizzard has the race at his mercy this season, and it would be a major shock if he didn't claim the big prize this weekend.
Thistlecrack is the "best" horse in the field but with doubts about his jumping, he is too short to back at this stage. Native River is a rock solid Gold Cup type and has the ability to get the field out of their comfort zones, but CUE CARD is the selection.
He started the 2106 renewal as a 5/2F and although he is another year older which does count against him, he is still a class act. He paid the price for going with Thistlecrack at Kempton and we can be sure that Paddy Brennan won't make that mistake again.
Should he, as expected, win the Ascot Chase with ease again this weekend his price is sure to shorten further which means that although he is likely to find a younger horse too good, he is an each-way play at his current price.