Still in the shadow of the Kauto Star, Denman and Long Run era, what reason have we to believe the current bunch can match those stars who raised the profile of staying chasers to dizzying heights in the last decade?
Such a shame 2015 Gold Cup winner Coneygree has missed most of the season, as a greater understanding of his ability would give us clear indication of where the current crop stands in terms of true quality.
Mark Bradstock’s horse always looked to be doing enough to hold runner-up Djakadam and third-placed Road To Riches in the Gold Cup but everything about that race suggests he was a good winner of an ordinary renewal.
Djakadam, only six then, can improve but his recent fall at Cheltenham – his second in three outings over fences at the track – leaves would-be supporters scratching their heads somewhat.
And Road To Riches, following his defeat in the Irish Gold Cup, may not even turn up this time - market moves suggest the Ryanair Chase is the more likely option.
If there’s a horse which can mark himself down as one for all ages it is Vautour, who has a spark of brilliance few horses possess.
What he may not have, however, is the stamina.
It’s that which appeared to be the issue when touched off in the King George and, had Don Cossack stood up, he may well have finished third.
Those who have backed Willie Mullins’ horse into favouritism for the Gold Cup are banking on a couple of things. Firstly, that he comes alive at Cheltenham, as he appeared to do so in each of the last two seasons.
And secondly, that the ground will be quicker than at Kempton.
Those two in place may ensure we see the best of him, but they won’t get him home over three miles two and a half furlongs around an undulating track - unless he truly stays.
We can concede he will look the most likely winner at many points during the race, and probably still going to the third-last. But what will he find from the bottom of the hill?
If he races to the post with the same enthusiasm as in last season’s JLT Chase, we will hail a true champion - but that’s a big ‘if’. It’s conceivable that, in a year’s time, we could be relishing the thought of him taking on Un De Sceaux and Douvan in the Champion Chase. A vintage crop of two-mile chasers? An argument for another day, perhaps.
Don Poli stays well, but his lazy style rarely excites. His most authoritative performances to date may have come at Cheltenham, but the form of last season’s RSA Chase looks questionable.
Will he ever post an effort of true star quality? That unconvincing effort in the Lexus Chase would suggest not.
Don Cossack is the highest rated chaser in these islands but his somewhat laboured performances this season leave something to prove. He’s a leading player but, like most of these, not a stand-out performer.
That trainer Alan King feels almost compelled to run Hennessy and Cotswold Chase winner Smad Place in the Gold Cup despite doubting the horse’s ability to win it, tells its own story.
Add the versatile Cue Card, whose sole outing beyond three miles resulted in a heavy defeat behind Don Cossack, and you all but complete a bunch of smart but not yet brilliant staying chasers.
Let’s not confuse a vintage Cheltenham Gold Cup with a tremendously competitive one.
There may be no Kauto Star or Best Mate, but the class of 2016 has bags of quality
Watching Road To Riches paddle towards the finish line in Saturday’s Irish Gold Cup you could have been forgiven for thinking talk of a golden era for staying chasers had been overblown.
This, after all, was a horse who had run his heart out in what was widely considered a vintage Gold Cup 12 months ago, only surrendering second spot to Djakadam in the last 150 yards.
He looked nothing like the same animal at Leopardstown, trailing in 12 lengths behind Carlingford Lough.
His disappointing effort came just weeks after Djakadam had fluffed his lines in the Betbright Trial.
Djakadam’s stablemate Don Poli is two from two this season but the manner of his victory in the Lexus Chase was far from convincing.
The King George raised more questions than it had answered. Don Cossack travelled with little fluency that day but was still in contention when crashing out at the second last.
In contrast, Vautour moved through the race quite beautifully until the final 50 yards and he was nailed on the line by Cue Card.
So is talk of a golden era hot air then? No. The top five in the Cheltenham Gold Cup market might all, to some degree, have questions to answer but they remain top-class chasers. Their CVs tell you that.
Don Cossack won the Melling Chase by 26 lengths at Aintree last season before beating Djakadam and Road To Riches in the Punchestown Gold Cup.
Little went right in the King George but the fact he was still in contention going to the second last says plenty about his class.
There are legitimate stamina questions about Vautour but his ability is undeniable. Also beyond question is the fact he reserves his best form for Cheltenham and his performance in the JLT Novices’ Chase last year was simply jaw-dropping.
Djakadam’s premature exit in his Gold Cup prep was obviously far from ideal but any horse can fall. Dawn Run fell in her Gold Cup prep 30 years and we know what happened next. Also in Djakadam’s favour is the fact, that unlike some of his market rivals, there is no doubt about his stamina.
Then there’s the enigma that is Don Poli, a horse that only ever does the bare minimum.
He’s never flashy but invariably gets the job done and is two from two at Cheltenham. It’s hard to escape the sense that even his connections are in the dark as to how good he is.
In the absence of last year’s winner Coneygree, the British challenge is led the rejuvenated Cue Card. There is a stamina question but he certainly didn’t stop when snatching the King George in the dying strides.
It’s hard to fancy Road To Riches based on his display on Saturday but it should be remembered that the Irish Gold Cup rarely has any significance on the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Only Jodami (1993) and Imperial Call (1996) have won both in the same season.
The likely better ground he’ll encounter at Cheltenham next month will definitely help Road To Riches and the fact he’s as big as 20/1 in places says plenty about the depth of the race.
There may not be a Kauto Star, a Denman or a Best Mate in the field but the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup has bags of quality. A race for the ages lies in store.