Friday sees the culmination of another stunning Cheltenham Festival, with the Gold Cup the blue riband event on the card.
For the first time since 2006, National Hunt racing’s showpiece event will not feature the mighty Kauto Star who bowed out on his shield 12 months ago. The race was also robbed of a past winner of the race, 2010 victor Imperial Commander, due to a bug in his yard but we still have the 2011 winner, Long Run, lining up.
Long Run is a high-class performer but he still has his critics, which is a shade harsh for a Gold Cup and dual King George VI Chase winner. Having detractors does, though, mean that he is a little longer in the betting than otherwise would be the case. Rain is forecast overnight into Friday, which may well loosen up the ground. That may make it a little less testing, but it will still require oodles of stamina to win a race that is likely to be run in solid fractions.
As well as having undoubted class, Long Run is packed with stamina – which he proved with his courageous second King George win on Boxing Day. The stats are against him, as only Kauto Star has regained the Gold Cup crown after losing it. But the same was the case with Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday and we know how that ended. And like Hurricane Fly, connections of Long Run are convinced their charge was not right when finishing third in the Gold Cup 12 months ago. We are prepared to believe that and in the hope that the cheekpieces he will sport for the first time sharpen up his jumping, we will row in with the 11/2 on offer at bet 365.
That’s not to say there are not dangers aplenty. Silviniaco Conti is the new kid on the block from the Paul Nicholls yard and he has looked very good in his three wins this year. He got the better of Long Run earlier in the season, but there is no way Ruby Walsh will get away with the stop-start-stop gallop he set that day at Haydock.
Long Run’s stablemate Bobs Worth is the market leader, and justifiably so on the back of his Hennnessy Gold Cup win at Newbury last year. He has not been sighted since that win, but that is not a negative given his superb record fresh. But for all his class and potential, it could well prove that Long Run is the better of the staying chasers in the Nicky Henderson yard.
The Irish believe they could have their first winner of the race since War Of Attrition in 2006 in the shape of Sir Des Champs. He is in the same Gigginstown Stud ownership as War Of Attrition and he has won on his two visits to the Festival. He looks sure to benefit from the step up in trip, but the nagging doubt is that he does have a habit of rubbing a fence and he won’t get away with it in this company.
For those looking for a longer-priced each-way bet, they could do worse than take a look at The Giant Bolster. He was second in the race 12 months ago and this stamina-packed son of Black Sam Bellamy will be staying on when others have cried enough. 14/1 is an each-way play.
The Gold Cup is the feature, but there are punting options aplenty elsewhere on the card. The two-mile cavalry charge that is the Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle is often won by a horse that is well handicapped. And to our eye the best handicapped horse in the race is Cotton Mill. He is the best horse in the race (don't be fooled by him not being top weight, he’s just well handicapped) and was beaten only by the blot on the landscape that was My Tent Or Yours in the Betfair Hurdle. He would have been second to Simonsig 12 months ago but for running out at the second last and we feel he will provide trainer John Ferguson with a first Festival winner. The 7/1 could look good value about 2.15pm.
It wouldn’t be worth having a punt at the Festival if you did not sign off with a shot at glory at the Grand Annual Chase. The getting-out stakes is not the for the faint hearted, as luck in running is required with 24 runners going at it like scalded cats over the two miles. As well as luck, you need a horse that is going to travel in his races. There are a number with the profile of the winner, but we just feel champion trainer Paul Nicholls could end what has been a disappointing meeting on a high. He teams up with Ruby Walsh with Ulck Du Lin and this horse has the look of one that could be operating in graded company further down the line. After travelling brilliantly on his seasonal debut only to tire over the 22-furlong trip, Nicholls dropped him down to the minimum distance and was rewarded with two facile wins. He has been kept away from the course for the best part of three months, but that is highly likely to have been to protect his mark rather than anything suspicious. The likes of Alderwood and Rody could also prove better than their marks, but Ulck Du Lin looks like he has been laid out for the race and the 9/1 makes major appeal.