And so to Gold Cup day, the final day of four at the Cheltenham Festival. Always a very difficult card, if you come up dry in the Triumph Hurdle and/or the big race itself, you'll be lucky to get out in front. We start with one of the more reliable (relatively) wagering conveyances of the day, the...
1.30 JCB Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 179yds)
Triumph Hurdle Preview
A race fairly high on quality if a little short on numbers with just nine going to post. They're headed by the unbeaten-in-four Apple's Shakira. All three of her wins since importing from France have come at Cheltenham, and all three of them have come on soft ground, most recently in the Grade 2 Triumph Hurdle Trial in January. She's obviously well suited to conditions, gets the seven pounds mares' allowance, should be suited by the run of the race and will be tough to beat.
But Apple's is not the highest rated in the field. That honour was claimed by Redicean, who improved his own unbeaten hurdles record to three when demolishing a shallow-looking line up in the Grade 2 Adonis Hurdle at Kempton last time. His three wins have all come at Kempton and, while that won't stop him adding Triumph glory, he is unproven on this very different circuit. He's rated inferior to Apple's Shakira after accounting for the sex allowance, and is a horse I'm happy to take on.
I respect the Irish one-two from the Spring Hurdle, Mr Adjudicator and Farclas. The former received a more patient ride to wear down the latter there, that looking the best piece of form in Ireland. There should again be little between them, though there is a joker in the Irish pack in the shape of Stormy Ireland.
A mare, she too will receive seven pounds from the boys. That obviously won't harm her cause but it is quite difficult to assess the merit of her win at Fairyhouse. There she pulled 58 (fifty-eight!) lengths clear of a moderate field and, so the clock lads tell me, in a very good time. She's not expected to get an easy time of it on the front, however, and that may compromise her ability to replicate the Fairyhouse effort. I can't back her at the price but nor can I discount the possibility that she's top class.
Saldier is another once-raced-in-Ireland Willie Mullins runner and, as the saying goes, if you've got four for the race you probably haven't got one. I'm not sure that's true, but this fellow is impossible to quantify and will likely be sussed out by the class elevation. I don't hold out much hope for the rest either.
Triumph Hurdle Pace Map
Triumph Hurdle Tips
This looks a good race for Apple's Shakira. She's tough and genuine and handles conditions well. I don't personally think she got the credit she deserved for her last day win: she was caught out of her ground and had a fair bit to do to get on terms with Look My Way; that she managed to pull eight lengths clear by the line spoke well of her. I think she'll come on for that run as well, and she's a good chance at a shortish price.
I'm not with Redicean or Stormy Ireland but fear the first two home from the Spring Hurdle, Mr Adjudicator and Farclas.
Best win bet: Apple's Shakira (short enough at 2/1 but playable if any firms go 5/2 in the morning)
Best each way bet: your choice of Mr Adjudicator and Farclas
2.10 Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 179yds)
County Hurdle Preview
Impossible race. Simply impossible. Using the avoiding bad bets approach, I'm looking for a five- or six-year-old towards the top of the market (20/1 or shorter). That actually doesn't help an awful lot, unfortunately. The pace map tells us that a hold up horse might be the best approach, which brings in last year's Fred Winter winner, Flying Tiger. He's been very well backed and I'm really annoyed with myself for not getting on at the better prices having spotted his County chance back in December. He's just about favourite now, and the booking of Noel Fehily looks inspired for a horse that will need to thread a passage from far back to grab this pot.
The other I'll guess with is Whiskey Sour. Willie Mullins' five-year-old actually won a Grade 1 two starts back and, while not necessarily taking that win entirely at face value (Mengli Khan, strong favourite that day, ran out), it remains good form. He's since been a twelve length fourth to Samcro in another Grade 1 and a mark of 141 is not insurmountable.
Two dozen more for you to choose from, including the interesting chase switcher, Brelade.
County Hurdle Pace Map
County Hurdle Tips
Ten deep to get through the placepot for me. Flying Tiger is short enough in the context of the race but certainly playable each way if you can get six places.
Best each way bet: Flying Tiger 14/1 (try to get extra places)
2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 7f 213yds)
Albert Bartlett Preview
After the County, this Grade 1 may look like a safe haven to the uninitiated; but recently it's been a minefield for punters with the last four winners returning 16/1, 11/1, 14/1 and, gulp, 33/1. Tread carefully is the suggestion.
Nicky Henderson has a strong hand with the first two in the market. Santini is the main man, unbeaten in a point and a couple of novice hurdles. He was impressive last time in wearing down Black Op - that one running Samcro close on Wednesday - and is the horse most likely to make up into a Gold Cup type. But he's inexperienced for a race of this nature and is no more than 'saver' material in my mind. In spite of that, I'd quite like to see him win well to support that 'possible future superstar' hunch.
The other Hendo at the head of the market is Chef Des Obeaux, staying on but no match for Santini when they met in December but subsequently thrice victorious. He will handle the ground, will stay, and has more match practice than his stablemate. The extra distance here, and the likely strong gallop, could get him closer to Santini this time around.
One I'm looking forward to seeing over this longer trip is OK Corral. Another from the Seven Barrows barn - he has four in the race, Mr Whipped completing the set - this green-and-golder was impressive when upped to two and a half at Kempton last time. He has a bit to find on the book but, as an eight year old against younger, is expected to relish the stamina test; he's a backable price.
The Irish challenge is headed by 64 length last day winner, Chris's Dream. As always with wide margin heavy ground successes it is very hard to gauge the level of that run. He'd previously won by less than five lengths in a race working out only okay, and he looks plenty short enough.
And at bigger prices, Dortmund Park is the type to go well in a heat like this. He's won a few and lost a few, and generally been best when the test has been severe. Davy Russell is a top man for the piloting role and he'll surely outrun 25/1 odds.
Albert Bartlett Pace Map
Albert Bartlett Tips
A hard race to weigh up. Santini is the right favourite and could be very good. But he's short enough for one so inexperienced. I think his stablemates Chef Des Obeaux and, especially at the prices, OK Corral might give him a race; and Dortmund Park looks over-priced.
Best value each way bet: OK Corral (12/1 Hills, Paddy)
Possible big priced each way poke: Dortmund Park (25/1 Betfair, Paddy, Betstars)
3.30 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2f 70yds)
Gold Cup Preview
The Blue Riband event of the week, the Gold Cup is an extreme test of class and stamina, the latter perhaps the key attribute required on the rain-softened turf this time around.
Whether that will suit long-term antepost favourite, Might Bite, remains to be seen. He had the speed to demolish his Grade 1 Feltham field last season before demolishing the final fence; and he had the ability to win the RSA Chase a few months later despite wandering across to sign autographs after the last. But this is more than a quarter mile further and it will be a lot softer than it was on either of those occasions.
He did win the King George on soft ground when last seen, but that was an unimpressive one length verdict over Double Shuffle. Further, he was beaten on heavy (career debut, 6/5 fav) in his only other race with dig in the ground. And still there are more concerns: Might Bite likes to lead, but so does Native River. Getting involved in a tussle on the front with suspect stamina and on turf softer than ideal will mean he is an absolute superstar if he wins. Oh yes, he'll also have to not do his 'nutcase' job in the latter part of the race. Not for me, though I do love him.
Native River is now vying for favouritism. There are no doubts about this one's stamina or soft turf aptitude - he won a Welsh National on soft under top weight - and the race looks tailor made for him. But he too has questions to answer: will he 'bounce' after quite a hard race at Newbury on his comeback from a year off? And will he do too much too soon by taking on Might Bite for the lead? He is a reasonable win bet, but the questions I've posed in this para make him no each way good thing.
Jessica Harrington sends over the main Irish hope, Our Duke, and he has his conditions, too. A mudlark who bolted up in the Irish Grand National last term, he took a while to come to hand this season. A brace of poor runs in Grade 1 chases - unplaced favourite on both occasions - were laid to rest when he beat off Presenting Percy on heavy ground last time out. That one was a good winner of the RSA Chase on Wednesday giving the form a rock solid feel. He has his chance, a fact fully reflected in a quote of 6/1.
Killultagh Vic would have won or nearly won the Irish Gold Cup if not taking a heavy fall at the last in Leopardstown last month, and therein lies the major issue with him: he is a very sketchy leaper. That problem has meant each of his last four races have been in different calendar years, the recent spill coming after a win over hurdles in December, which was in turn his first run since January 2016. He has bags of ability, and he might be a bet with Coral's faller insurance, but I can't consider him as the selection with that major frailty sure to come under examination.
Definitly Red is a bit of a forgotten horse. Nominated as the each way bet of the meeting by the official handicapper, Phil Smith, at the recent London Racing Club Cheltenham preview, Brian Ellison's charge was a clear-cut winner of the Cotswold Chase over three miles and a furlong here in January. It was heavy that day, so nothing to fret about re ground or trip. Whether he's quite good enough I'm not sure, but he's a touch over-priced.
The one I really liked this year was Road To Respect. I say 'was' because I think it's got too muddy for his tastes: he's won on soft before, but his best form is on terra firmer (sic). If it does dry out a little, I still think he has a decent chance based on a couple of Grade 1 scores and a Festival win last year.
The winner of the Irish Gold Cup was Edwulf, and this story horse is another which has been somewhat forgotten in the run up to the race this year. Down and almost out after going wrong on the run-in in the National Hunt Chase at the Festival last year, he was more likely to lose his life than not, let alone return to racing at the top level. To then win a Grade 1, as he did that last day, is remarkable. The ground has come right for him again, and he is a touch of value at 16/1 albeit that he'd need to improve a few pounds; as a second season chaser he retains the scope to do just that.
American is three from three on soft ground but was no match for Definitly Red in receipt of four pounds last time. He was staying on at that shorter trip so it not impossible that he could make the first four or five. As a lightly raced runner, he too has a bit more scope than many in the field.
An outsider with a squeak is Anibale Fly, trained by Tony Martin. He wasn't really in the picture in that Irish Gold Cup before taking a heavy fall two out. I was hoping Mark Walsh would ride him but Barry Geraghty has chosen this fellow over Minella Rocco (he didn't have an option on Edwulf). The Fly loves a big field - he's won in herds of 16, 25 and 28 (twice) - and has shown abundant stamina up to the three mile range. He has to show he can see out the extra quarter mile and a bit and will be played fairly late, but he's an interesting 'rag'.
Interesting rag status is also conferred upon Djakadam, in his fourth Gold Cup attempt. 2nd-2nd-4th is his string thus far, so could he do a The Fellow? That French homme was second in both 1991 and 1992, and fourth in 1993 before finally claiming that elusive victory in 1994. While stranger things have happened, just one win from his last eleven starts does not offer too much hope.
The rest probably won't figure.
Gold Cup Pace Map
Gold Cup Tips
A wide open Gold Cup, and I'm sure it will be 5/1 the field in the morning. I respect Might Bite but fear the race setup for him; Native River is one I'm happy to let beat me; and I'm not sure about the Irish pair of Our Duke and Killultagh Vic. Of course, any of those could win, but they're not for me. At the prices, I'm happier taking a bit of a chance on Definitly Red, Anibale Fly and perhaps American.
Best value each way bet: Definitly Red 12/1 888sport (1/4 1-2-3)
Bigger priced smaller stakes each possibles: American 25/1 general, Anibale Fly 33/1 Hills
4.10 St James's Place Foxhunter Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2f 70yds)
Foxhunter Chase Preview
It now gets very very difficult. This race, run over the same course and distance as the Gold Cup, is for amateurs only, both horses and jockeys. Seven of the last nine winners returned 13/2 or shorter, the other pair being 16/1 and 33/1, and it is in the short grass that I will start and end my search for the winner.
The favourite is Burning Ambition, trained, like six of the last seven winners, in Ireland. He's had just two starts under Rules, winning on debut before running second to Gilgamboa in his prep for this. Just a seven-year-old, he has plenty of scope; indeed, those aged six or seven are five from 40 (12.5% win rate). That's better than twice as good as any other age group. Jamie Codd, the best rider in this peloton, takes the mount and if he gets the luck in transit he'll probably win.
Wonderful Charm is a ten-year-old representing last year's winning trainer, Paul Nicholls. He won at this marathon distance at Musselburgh last time, and was a close second in the race last year. Sam Waley-Cohen takes over from Katie Walsh, who steered that day, the dentist having ridden Wonderful Charm on his last two starts: W-C for WC. He ought again to run his race, and he's far from a bad each way bet with trip, track and ground all fine.
The pretender at the top of the market looks to be Foxrock. He has been whacked on both Festival starts, and seems either not to like travelling or not to like Cheltenham. The effect is the same: no bet.
And just like that we're into the double digit quotes. A couple which may be worth a second glance are Caid Du Berlais and Cousin Pete. The former is a nine-year-old good enough to race in a handicap at last year's Festival off a mark in the 140's. He's won his three points and, though there's a slight reservation about stamina in the ground, he'd be classier than most of these and is 14/1.
At a guesser's price, 40/1, Cousin Pete could go well for a fair way. He's a well bred - Kayf Tara out of an Alderbrook mare - latecomer who was a winner over three miles and a furlong at the April Hunter Chase meeting here. Since then he's run second on soft (three miles) at Market Rasen in a hunter chase which has worked out well (winner and third both won since). The jockey is a bit of an unknown, but if you're prepared to take that chance, you might get a decent run for a pennies play.
Foxhunter Chase Pace Map
Foxhunter Chase Tips
This appears to be a KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) race, and I like the jolly even if I'm not enormously fond of his price. 7/2 is still all right, mind. It ought to be hard to keep Wonderful Charm out of the frame, so 13/2 there is decent too.
In the prayer mat camp is Cousin Pete, a big priced value loser perhaps.
Best win bet: Burning Ambition 7/2 general
Best each way bet: Wonderful Charm 13/2 general
Hail Mary penny play: Cousin Pete 40/1 Betfair, Paddy, betstars, Victor
4.50 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Class 2, 2m 4f 56 yds)
Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Preview
Oh my. The route in here simply has to be Gordon Elliott, former jockey to Martin Pipe, and the hottest trainer at the meeting after three winners on Wednesday and three more on Thursday. Elliott saddles four, and there may not be much between at least three of them.
Flawless Escape is a joint favourite, and the mount of Jonathon Moore. He has been consistent this season, winning twice and being placed on his other two starts, most recently in a Grade B Handicap at Leopardstown over three miles. A five year old with few miles on the clock, he should again run his race.
Sire Du Berlais, for whom Donal McInerney will sport the green and gold silks, is also towards the head of the market. He caught the eye when flying late at Fairyhouse last time, and is the sort of improving young horse that wins this race. Meanwhile, Blow By Blow won a Grade 3 novice hurdle with ease last time and is also seriously on the upgrade. This will be his first start in a handicap, Donagh Meyler taking the ride.
The thoroughly exposed Flaxen Flare rounds out Elliott's quartet. Exposed but with an excellent course record: he won the 2013 Fred Winter, was 4th in the Greatwood Hurdle later that year, and ran fifth in the County Hurdle in 2014. He's not been seen much since and, after an abortive chasing career, reverts to hurdles for the first time since an eleven length third to Apple's Jade four starts back. He'll probably outrun 66/1 quotes.
One that cattches my eye is Harry Fry's Melrose Boy. Third in a soft ground Grade 3 handicap hurdle last time - form franked by Topofthegame on Tuesday - this drop back in trip will suit and he too has few miles on the clock. 25/1 with as many extra places as you can get is attractive.
And how much would David Pipe love to win the race named in his father's honour? He's 0 from 18, one place, so far, which tempers enthusiasm for the unbeaten Mr Big Shot, a 16/1 chance making his handicap debut after a year off the track. Unexposed as he is, I'd want to see a good bit of money for him before having the confidence to follow them in. And, even then, I'd choke on the notion of having to miss the pick of the prices.
Obviously, bundles more with chances.
Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Pace Map
Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Tips
I genuinely have no idea and will not be betting. It is however the last leg of the hardest placepot of the week. From that perspective, Melrose Boy and the top three Elliott horses will all make my ticket. Melrose Boy is almost worth a stab at the prices.
Best hopeless guess in a tricky race: Melrose Boy 25/1 Coral
5.30 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 2m 62yds)
Grand Annual Preview
And so to the final race of 28 this week. The Home Time Handicap - also known as the Grand Annual - is a ferociously competitive two mile speed test when the job of leaping at full pelt in a big field finds most aspirants out.
The two for me are both green-and-gold'ers. First, representing last year's winning stable, is Don't Touch It. Trained by Jessica Harrington and ridden by the excellent Mark Walsh, whose record on the horse reads 2231214, this chap has clearly been laid out for the race. That doesn't set him apart from many others, except that a) his trainer knows how to win it (and is very close friends with Nicky Henderson, whose father Johnny the race commemorates), b) he has an almost perfect profile against the race conditions, and c) his hold up run style looks ideally suited to the expected fierce tempo.
My other swipe is Paul Nicholls' Le Prezien. Ol' Pumpkin also knows how to win a Grand Annual, having achieved the feat three times since 2004, most recently in 2016 with Solar Impulse. Le Prezien is a hold up horse - tick; will relish conditions - tick; has back class tying him in with Grade 1 chasers - tick; and gets assistance from Barry Geraghty... well, you can't have everything, can you?
On a more serious note, BJG has been a little out of luck/form this week, Buveur d'Air aside, and I'll be betting that he has a better Friday as you've seen above.
Loads of others with chances of course, though I'm against North Hill Harvey, whose trainer, Dan Skelton, is 1 from 27 in the last fortnight, and who may be compromised by being too close to a speed meltdown. If the speed was to hold up - unlikely - Gino Trail could be over-priced at 25/1.
Grand Annual Pace Map
Grand Annual Tips
Lord help you if you need to get out of jail on this race. Though, if there is a benevolent deity, he's probably backed Le Prezien and Don't Touch It - that's the white hat and the red hat for those watching in colour. Hope vastly trumps expectation.
Two each way against the rest: Don't Touch It 10/1 general, Le Prezien 16/1 bet365 (1/4 1-2-3-4-5)
And that's your lot. However things go on Gold Cup day, I hope you've had a brilliant week enjoying top class sport. The first three days have been utterly dominated by the Irish, and I'm hoping that changes on Friday. Maybe that's not a smart way to bet? Only time will tell.
Thanks a lot for your company this week, and good luck!