It’s hard to recall a more open Cheltenham Gold Cup than the one that will unfold before our eyes at 3.30pm this afternoon. Of the 16 set to go to post in the Magners-sponsored Cheltenham Festival highlight, only four can be dismissed with real confidence – it really is that open.
The obvious starting point is Presenting Percy. A fine winner of the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle at the 2017 Festival, Pat Kelly’s charge was even better in last year’s RSA Chase, cruising to a seven-length victory in the style of a future Gold Cup winner.
His course record clearly warrants huge respect and he could be a superstar, but his preparation for D-Day has been, to put it mildly, anything but conventional. Presenting Percy has only run once since last March, winning the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park in January.
Consequentially, he will line up for this ferocious test without a run over fences this season. To put the challenge he faces into some sort of context, no horse has won the Gold Cup without a run over fences in the same season since Easter Hero won the blue riband in 1929.
That doesn’t mean he can’t win but a price of around 7-2 doesn’t reflect the scale of the task he faces. For that reason, he has to be opposed.
Reigning champion Native River is back for more and conditions should suit this dour stayer. However, every horse who has won this race more than once has been a superstar and, admirable though he is, the suspicion is Native River is not quite at that exalted level.
Might Bite was a gallant second to Native River last year but has been way below that form in two runs this season. He’s had a wind surgery since disappointing in the King George at Christmas and, though it requires quite a leap of faith, he would be a big danger if he came back to his best.
Willie Mullins has opted for a four-pronged attack as he seeks to finally break his Gold Cup hoodoo. Bellshill, the choice of Ruby Walsh, looks the best of that quartet but he has yet to bring his ‘A’ game to Cheltenham and holes can be picked in his form.
Ultimately, the horse with the best profile for this year’s race is the progressive Clan Des Obeaux. Paul Nicholls has won this race four times already and Clan Des Obeaux’s superb victory in the King George is the single best piece of form on offer this season.
He followed that up by winning the Denman Chase in fine style and a big run seems certain.
The fact he has yet to win in four trips to Cheltenham is an obvious concern but the seven-year-old is a far better horse now and he gets the vote to land what promises to be a compelling renewal.
The JCB Triumph Hurdle kicks off Gold Cup day and the Joseph O’Brien-trained Sir Erec looks banker material.
A useful performer on the Flat for Joseph’s father, Aidan, Sir Erec has successfully transformed that ability to hurdles and he can ensure day four gets off to a flying start for punters.
The gruelling nature of the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle means it tends to be a graveyard for favourites with history suggesting a big-priced battle-hardened slogger is the way to go.
Dinons fits the bill. Gordon Elliott’s charge doesn’t have a sexy profile but he did put together a quick-fire five-timer between last August and October with the last of those wins coming at Cheltenham. He hasn’t been since disappointing at Navan in November and he lacks the potential star-quality of some of the market principals. Against that, he has course form and proven toughness, assets that should serve him well today. At around 12-1, he makes each-way appeal.
Elliott may also provide the answer in the St James’s Place Foxhunter Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase where useful handicapper Ucello Conti should go well for Jamie Codd.
The first of the day’s three handicaps is the Randox Health County Hurdle. This looks fiendishly tough but Monsieur Lecoq, second to Malaya in last weekend’s Imperial Cup, may be able to go one better providing the Sandown run hasn’t left a mark.
Elsewhere, Gary Moore’s Not Another Muddle should go close in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Chase while Elliott can conclude what could be a terrific final day for the Meath man by winning the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle, the final race of the 2019 Festival. Elliott has won the race named after his mentor the last two years and Dallas Des Pictons has leading claims of making it a hat-trick.
1:30 Sir Erec (Nap)
2:10 Monsieur Lecoq
3:30 Clan Des Obeaux
4:10 Ucello Conti (nb)
4:50 Not Another Muddle
5:30 Dallas Des Pictons