And so to the final day of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, Gold Cup day, and the last chance to emerge victorious from the bruising punting encounters. It's traditionally a tough day as evidenced by some stratospheric placepot dividends - remember the £91,774.50 just two years ago? - so caution is advised on the staking front, though one correct swipe can nullify a week of losses. We start as usual at 1.30 with the...
Not the competitive race it was before the introduction of the Fred Winter in 2005, it tends to be won by a horse towards the top of the market. Indeed, the three winners pre-2005 were returned at 20/1 twice and 16/1, whereas since that inaugural year only 33/1 Countrywide Flame has returned greater than 10/1. Still, 16 are scheduled to go to post.
The JP McManus-owned pair, Defi Du Seuil and Charlie Parcs, had a stranglehold on the top of the market for most of the winter, but a fall at Kempton in the Adonis - a traditionally strong Triumph trial - has pushed Charlie out to a more backable price. Of course, that's as a result of his newly discovered fallibility and, in any case, initial concerns appear to have dissipated in a market where punters are keen to be with horses trained by Nicky Henderson. Having been 8/1 post-Adonis, he's now into a top offer of 4/1.
Charlie Parcs had won in France before a debut defeat of Master Blueyes in a Kempton novice that has worked out very well. Importantly, that race was on good ground, as was the Adonis, so he's proven his affinity for quicker surfaces. But in the latter race he was going no better than Master Blueyes, the eventual winner, and arguably not as well. The stronger test of stamina of Cheltenham's New course could suit but the track remains an unknown.
Master Blueyes is battle hardened - he had ten runs on the flat and has now had five over hurdles - and progressive at the Winter game. Having taken four runs to get off the hurdling mark, he's now unbeaten in his last two, including in that Grade 2 Adonis, winning by an aggregate 29 lengths. I'd be concerned that all his form is on flat tracks and don't want to back him at 6/1.
Meanwhile, Defi Du Seuil, whose preparations were completed at Cheltenham on Trials Day with an emphatic but largely meaningless victory, comes here as favourite off the back of an unbroken five race winning streak. That sequence includes three victories at this track as well as a Grade 1 score in the Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow. He has won on ground ranging from soft to good and will prove hard to beat.
The pick of the Irish challenge is expected to be Mega Fortune. Trained by Gordon Elliott and ridden by Davy Russell is a brace of positives before even considering the horse's form, and that also stands scrutiny. Five runs over timber have resulted in two wins, culminating in an assertive verdict over re-opposing Bapaume in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle.
That was on soft ground and, despite winning a weak novice on good at Down Royal, there is a reservation about how Mega Fortune will perform on a sounder surface in top company. Similar comments apply to the runner up. An Irish runner who will appreciate faster underfoot is Landofhopeandglory. A winner of a Grade 3 on good to yielding when completing an initial hat-trick over hurdles, he's been beaten twice since on softer, including when sunk in heavy ground last time. He has a not dissimilar profile to stablemate, Ivanovich Gorbatov, who won last year's Triumph having been whacked on heavy on his previous outing.
There are three fillies in the race, the pick of which looks to be Gordon Elliott's Dinaria Des Obeaux. A winner of three of her four starts to date, she was beaten ten lengths by Mega Fortune in the G1 Spring Juvenile, which gives her a bit to find on the face of it. But she's won again since, and the faster ground might just enable her to get closer to her stablemate.
At the prices, while Defi Du Seuil looks solid, I'm tempted to side each way with Joseph O'Brien's runner, who can flip flop form with Bapaume on the expected sounder lawn.
Solid enough win bet:
Defi Du Seuil 9/4 Paddy, Betfair Sports
Each way play:
Landofhopeandglory 16/1 Ladbrokes, Coral
A handicap for older horses over the same course and distance as the Triumph offers an immediate comparison of the merit of the former heat. It is, as are all Festival handicaps, a ferociously competitive affair where - as with most of the Festival handicaps - it may pay to side with the Irish raiders, who have won seven of the last ten County Hurdles.
The shortest priced Irish horse is Mick Jazz, trained by that man Elliott. He won a Listed novices' hurdle last time, having run very well in third in a big field Grade A handicap the time before. A mark of 143 might not stop him but it will make things difficult.
Five year olds have an incredible record in this race, winning ten times and hitting the board 25 times since 1997 from 120 runners. As such, last year's Triumph Hurdle winner, Ivanovich Gorbatov, demands even closer scrutiny. He's dropped four pounds from his peak rating of 154, and the drying ground on a course he has shown he loves propel him towards the top of my shortlist. He will find this easier than the Grade 1 company he's kept in his last four starts.
The 2016 Fred Winter winner, Diego Du Charmil, also lines up here, but he's only a pound inferior on current ratings and will struggle to beat Ivan G on very close to equal terms. More appealing is the very lightly raced over hurdles Mohaayed, trained by Dan Skelton. Rated around 100 on the flat when with Kevin Prendergast, this son of Intikhab was second on his debut behind Elgin. He followed that up with a fair fourth to Neon Wolf in the Rossington Main at Haydock, the winner advertising that form when all but winning again in the Neptune on Wednesday.
And he was off the mark at the third time of asking when waltzing away with a soft ground Taunton novices' hurdle five weeks ago. His best form on the flat was on good ground so, while he's inexperienced for a gig like this, 25/1 looks very big about his chance.
Karl Thornton's Wakea is another worth noting at a price. He was beaten behind Supreme winner, Labaik, last time but before that he'd won his prior three hurdle races, all on good ground. He was disqualified from the first of those, a 20 runner maiden hurdle, but showed he could handle the hustle and bustle of a big field in being first past the post that day. Trip, ground and likely fast pace are all in his favour making 33/1 appealing.
Favourite and stable mate of Mohaayed, North Hill Harvey, is well regarded, and it's easy to see why on his fourth to Champion Hurdle winner, Buveur D'Air, two starts back. He's since won his only race this season, the Greatwood over course and distance. That formline reads well enough, with second placed Modus winning the Lanzarote Hurdle since, and dual subsequent handicap winner, Brain Power, down the field. But the layoff is a bit of a niggle for me, as is the additional imposition of eight pounds in weight for that last day success.
The most fascinating runner in the field might be the other Gordy horse, Tell Us More. This lightly raced eight year old has been chasing in his last six starts but, prior to that, he was sixth in Douvan's Supreme Novices' Hurdle win on his final hurdles outing. He gets in here off a mark of 142 and could be well handicapped.
It's an obviously trappy race where I'm happy to hurl a couple of darts at big prices.
Three tiny tickles off the tee:
Tell Us More 16/1 Hills, Paddy
Mohaayed 28/1 Ladbrokes
Wakea 33/1 Victor (five places)
bet365, BetVictor, Ladbrokes, Coral all 1/4 1-2-3-4-5
Skybet, Paddy 1/5 1-2-3-4-5-6
Unlike the shorter Neptune Hurdle, which is often run at a relatively sedate pace - as evidenced by Willoughby Court's controlled front-running display on Wednesday, the 'potato race' is normally a war of attrition where horses that have been lobbing round in small fields before getting outpaced can suddenly blossom under the sterner examination they face here.
There is little doubt that Death Duty brings the best Irish form to the race, but it is form achieved in those bimbling heavy ground contests which typically contrast so dramatically with the Albert Bartlett. That's not to say Death Duty cannot win. Of course not. His form is rock solid, and so is that of his trainer, Gordon Elliott. But he'll probably be running on ground quicker and in a race run faster than he's previously encountered. At 2/1 or so, I'll probably let him beat me.
Wholestone looks good in many ways: he's won over the trip, at the track, and on good ground. His last day trial, though not the biggest field, was a true run race meaning he ticks plenty of boxes coming into this. That was a Grade 2 that is working out well and the only negative is the form of his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies. Nige has had just one winner from 57 runners in the last 30 days, and his seven Tuesday/Wednesday Cheltenham runners collectively failed to make the frame.
I'm preying for signs of a revival in stable form on Thursday because I really want to back this lad. But the cloud above Hollow Bottom appears large and pervasive just now.
The horse Elliott admitted to fearing at a recent preview night was Monalee, who finished a close second the Death Duty in a Grade 2 two starts ago. He's since won a Grade 3 on heavy and, by Milan, is expected to improve for better ground. He looks a strong staying type, and I've backed him ante-post at 10/1. Again demonstrating what a judge I am (ahem), the horse is still available at 8/1 generally. There are no such negative stable vibes with Henry de Bromhead's team and I'm hopeful of a big run from this one.
Tom George is due a change of luck after Singlefarmpayment added to his Cheltenham Festival near miss showreel on Tuesday, and he could just get it courtesy of The Worlds End. Unbeaten in three since a debut third over hurdles, he ran away with a Haydock Grade 2 on this sort of ground and over this sort of trip last time. He's been brought expertly to the boil and looks another player in what may be a more open race than the betting implies.
This might be too far for promising mare, Augusta Kate, though connections are naturally respected.
Most Likely Winner:
Death Duty 9/4 bet365
Two sporting alternatives:
Monalee 8/1 general
The Worlds End 10/1 general
Paddy 1/5 1-2-3-4
The "Amateurs' Gold Cup", so called because it is run over the same distance directly after the Blue Riband, it bears little other resemblance to that great event. Still, it's a decent betting race, pitting as it does the ex-Graded racers on the wane against the rising stars between the flags. The Foxhunters' has been dominated in the last couple of seasons by the brilliant On The Fringe, who has achieved back-to-back Cheltenham/Aintree/Punchestown Champion Hunter victories.
That is unmatched in the history of the sport and is testament to the talents of trainer Enda Bolger - mainly known for his banks exploits - as much as those of the horse. On The Fringe comes here off the back of a narrow defeat in the same Leopardstown hunter chase in which he was beaten the two years he went on to record those auspicious trebles and, now twelve, he shows little signs of regression. He is far and away the most likely winner.
Wonderful Charm, second in a Grade 2 two years ago, looks a typically over-rated ex-Rules runner from the Paul Nicholls stable. His course record is largely uninspiring and, though he wouldn't be a shock winner, he looks a rubbish price.
More interesting, especially if there's any juice in the ground, is Ask The Weatherman. He was making his Rules debut in a warm Wincanton hunter when barrelling away from established stick, Rebel Rebellion. That was on heavy ground, however, and his liking for faster is taken on trust.
Paint The Clouds is twelve now but he loves to hear his hooves rattle, as the cliche goes. Only a length behind On The Fringe in this last year, he went on to win the Stratford Champion Hunter on good ground. That was his last Rules run prior to a warm-up at Doncaster last month - again on good - where he saw the 3m2f trip out well. He looks as though time has yet to catch up and is playable each way.
Outside of the favourite, the most eye-catching Irish runner could be point-to-point machine, Anseanachai Cliste. Don't ask me to pronounce it but the buzz is that this lad is useful and could shake up the more established Rules players. To offer some objective balance to those subjective whispers, he will have had to have improved enormously on his hunter chasing form from last season to be involved at the sharp end against these hardened old pro's. Still only nine, maybe he has.
Sam Waley-Cohen, Paint The Clouds' regular pilot, defects to his father's Black Thunder. His mount, a son of Malinas, suffered a shock defeat at Kelso last time when sent off the 1/8 favourite. More worrying than that - it was a prep after all - is that all six of his career wins have come on soft or heavy. He'll need to get his toe in to be a player.
Dolatulo is ten now, and bids to be a second winner on the week for Ben Pauling. A twenty length win in a Class 4 Hunter Chase last time show he's in excellent fettle, though that was on soft ground. He has plenty of good form on quicker, mind, and the 25/1 in a place is probably too big.
On The Fringe 6/4 general
Small each way pair:
Paint The Clouds 12/1 bet365
Dolatulo 25/1 Betfair Sports
BetVictor, Padd 1/5 1-2-3-4
If you're not in front by now, it's going to be difficult and, in truth, I have little to offer in the last two races, both of which are impossible looking handicaps. We start with the two and a half mile handicap hurdle for conditional jockeys.
Geegeez blogger, and champion conditional elect, Harry Cobden, rides Tim Vaughan's hat-trick-seeking Dadsintrouble. He was going well when falling in a course and distance handicap in the autumn and has moved 19 pounds up the handicap since then. How much progression he retains is the big question, with conditions likely to suit and one of the best - perhaps the best - jockey in the race.
I backed Willie Mullins' Battleford for the Albert Bartlett, figuring he needed a stiffer test. But they'll go fast here and that should suit. With the Mullins team back in the winners' enclosure on Thursday, he's a player.
Nick Williams had the Fred Winter winner with a handicap debutant earlier in the week and Coo Star Sivola - third in that race last year on his only prior handicap start - could make it a memorable week for the yard. They have a solid recent Cheltenham record too.
But, honestly, there's barely a horse in here you couldn't make a case for.
Partially sighted poke in the Pipe:
Coo Star Sivola 16/1 bet365 (five places)
bet365 1/4 1-2-3-4-5
The 'lucky last'? You have to be kidding. Two things I know about this:
- They will go pretty fast and you need a strong travelling sort
- There will be a huge amount of bad luck in running
That's the way it is in the Grand Annual. So, hoping we're lucky as much as good, a few that catch the eye are:
Le Prezien is a novice with more to come. He's normally ridden off the main speed and if his jumping holds up he should be on the premises. Croco Bay was third in this two years ago off an eight pound higher mark (fell last year) so is well in this time. Fourth in the Arkle last year, The Game Changer is five pounds below that rating now. Rock The World was third in this last year and has just a pound more to carry this time.
Last year's winner, Solar Impulse, is actually three pounds lower this time. He has also changed stables, from Paul Nicholls to Chris Kellett, and shown very little in four starts for his new yard. Granted two of those were over further and on softer turf, and we know he'll be suited by the setup if the fire still burns. It's a big if but he's 40/1.
And Pairofbrowneyes ran well over course and distance in November, beaten a neck. He's a strong travelling sort who handles quick ground and goes well in big fields. 25/1 is not bad then.
Loads of chances, take your pick.
Three win only 'guesses':
Le Prezien 8/1 Hills, Victor
Croco Bay 33/1 general
Pairofbrowneyes 25/1 general
Phew. So that will be that. 28 races of Cheltenham Festival 2017 will have been run by quarter-to-six on Friday, and I'll be in the pub for the afternoon. Don't try to call after four o'clock! 😉
I hope you've had a great week, best of luck with your Friday bets, and stay safe this St. Patrick's Day.