The headline race of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival is Friday's Gold Cup, a Grade 1 steeplechase run over just shy of three miles and three furlongs. Like other flagship events this term, the line up will be missing some key names; and, like other flagship events this term, that only serves to make it a more compelling wagering proposition.
The absence of the last two winners, Don Cossack and Coneygree, as well as the heir apparent novice, Thistlecrack, has weakened the quality, but the upshot is that we are likely to see a bigger field and a more competitive contest.
Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017 Trends
Twenty years of evidence means 19 renewals, excluding 2001 when the race was cancelled due to the foot and mouth outbreak.
While youth doesn't seem to be any barrier to success - six and seven year olds have won five (26%) and placed 15 (26%) times from just 16.5% of the runners - veteran status has been an impediment. Indeed, the old guard - those aged ten and above - are 1 from 81 (10 places), which equates to 5% of the winners, 17.5% of the places, from 30% of the runners.
Moreover, those aged 11+ are 0 from 33, 4 places (7% of the places from 12.5% of the runners).
Horses aged eight and nine have performed a touch better than numerical representation, though not quite as well as the youngest group.
The key takeaway is probably that those aged eleven and up really do have a mountain to climb, which is a very bad start if you're a Cue Card fan.
An interesting snippet is that three of the four old boys to make the frame in the last two decades were trained by Paul Nicholls (Denman, Kauto Star and See More Business - all of them previous Gold Cup winners). Interesting, maybe, but of no use whatsoever in the context of this year's race!
At the precocious end of the spectrum, Bristol De Mai is the sole six-year-old in the line up, and may be joined by seven-year-olds, Native River, Sizing John and Minella Rocco.
Interesting. Although those rested between one and two months have won seven of the last 19 renewals, that is significantly below numerical representation. Specifically, those off 31-60 days have won 37% of the Gold Cups from 49% of the runners.
Those absent between two and three months have fared better: ten wins (53%) from just 16.5% of the runners; and more than a quarter of the places to boot.
This could be a positive for the likes of Djakadam, Outlander, and Zabana (all absent since the Lexus Chase, 79 days prior to Gold Cup Friday).
Last Time Out
Last day winners have the usual excellent record in Cheltenham Festival races. In this case, they have claimed 63% of the wins and 51% of the places from 33% of the runners. Sadly, but predictably, blindly following them would have produced heavy losses.
Those running second last time appear to have been over-estimated by the market, their two winners in the past two decades (10.5% of the wins) and eight places (14%) coming from 20% of the runners.
The non-completions group have placed 9% of the time from 10% of the runners (one winner, Cool Dawn in 1998, who pulled up on his previous outing), so should not be totally discounted. That's a ray of hope if you're a fan of either of the McManus pair, More Of That and Minella Rocco.
Horses coming out of Grade 1 competition have won 56% of the Gold Cups in the last twenty years, from 33% of the runners; while those exiting Grade 2 contests claimed 39% of the victories from 34% of the runners. Those who competed at a lower level last time represented 33% of all Gold Cup runners, but claimed just one of the 19 available Cups (seven places, 12.5%).
In summary, then, nothing surprising to report: look to last time out winners and those exiting Grade 1 or Grade 2 company.
Sticking with the bleedin' obvious has been a good Gold Cup wagering strategy down the years.
Last time out winners aged nine or younger exiting Grade 1 or 2 company have bagged 11 Gold Cups from 46 runners for a tiny profit of 1.86 points. That's 61% of the wins from 17.5% of the runners.
Focusing only on those priced 8/1 or shorter would reduce the number of bets to 31 and thus the profit to 16.86, retaining all of the winners.
Horses matching those somewhat 'boring' criteria are Native River (definitely), and Outlander and Sizing John (possibly, depending on their odds on the day).
Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017 Form Preview
No Thistlecrack. No Don Cossack. No Coneygree. But a really fascinating, and still potentially high class, contest nevertheless.
Three vie for favouritism - the Colin Tizzard-trained pair of Cue Card and Native River, and Djakadam - but surely the first-named is going to drift on the day as cold-blooded acumen takes hold over sentimentalism with regards to the eleven-year-old Cheltenham perennial.
Let's begin with Cue Card. Winner of the Champion Bumper as a four-year-old, he has been back to the Festival four times since, running second in Sprinter Sacre's 2012 Arkle and winning the 2013 Ryanair Chase.
Last year, he was the principle danger to Don Cossack when taking a tumble three from the finish. It's very hard to say whether he'd have won, or even gone close, that day because it is only after his point of departure that the deepest demands are made on stamina reserves.
Although Cue Card has won over three miles on heavy ground - including in impressive fashion on his seasonal debut in the Betfair Chase at Haydock - there remains, for me, a slight stamina question mark. It is also arguable that his very best form has come on flatter tracks than Cheltenham's Möbius Strip configuration.
I realise it's uncharitable to suggest it, but I think Cue Card is lay material. He would do fantastically well to make the frame and, if he could win, it would be the most tremendous story for the sport. But it would cost this scribe's wallet a penny or two.
From the same stable hails the impressive Native River. Resembling Denman in some respects, this is a barreling elephant of a horse - a mobile fortress - that has such an incredibly attritional meter to his gallop he simply wears his rivals down. He did it in the Hennessy, he did it in the Welsh National (under top weight) and he did it in the Denman Chase last month, albeit with more finesse on the latter occasion.
Stamina is largely assured but there may be a small niggle about his affection for the course: he was a well beaten ninth in the 2015 Albert Bartlett and, while he stuck on commendably in last year's National Hunt Chase over four miles, he was error-strewn and under pressure from an early stage.
Native River does seem to have two ways of running. The National Hunt Chase huff and puff Mr Hyde-style is unlikely to give him a chance to win, but the strong-travelling Doctor Jekyll version will prove hard to beat.
The trio at the head of the market are concluded by Willie Mullins' Djakadam. Runner up the last twice, he is still only eight years old and has, according to his trainer, had a much smoother preparation for this year's race. Although beaten four lengths by Don Cossack last year, there was ten and more back to the rest, and that form may already be good enough to win this season's Gold Cup.
So far this winter, Djakadam has had two runs, beating Outlander over two and a half miles in the John Durkan before running third to the same rival in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown in late December. He will doubtless be primed for the big day next week.
It is hard to argue that there should be much between Outlander and Djakadam on those two most recent outings. Former stablemates at Mullins' Closutton yard before Gigginstown boss, Michael O'Leary, removed all of his horses from that stable, Outlander appears to have improved more than a stone for the change of scenery and, of course, for his greater maturity.
Outlander's Lexus Chase win was only his third run at three miles or more, and he looks quite progressive at staying trips. A close second to Martello Tower in a tactical three-horse novice hurdle was franked when his vanquisher there won the Albert Bartlett two runs later, and on his only other staying attempt, Outlander was a close second in the Punchestown Champion Novices' Chase.
One reservation, aside from whether he's quite good enough yet, is that his best form does seem to be with some juice in the turf. With a wettish week forecast, he has a chance of getting his conditions, but lacks Djakadam's ground agnosticism.
In another lifetime, we'd surely be lauding Sizing John as a superstar of the game. But for a certain Douvan, he'd have won eleven of his last fourteen races, six of them in Grade 1 company. The reality is somewhat different, with six wins, two of them Grade 1's, in that fourteen race sequence.
That's still a respectable tally and he seems to have matured into a high 160's chaser in his second season hedgehopping. But the big question mark here is his stamina. A winner over three miles on his most recent run, that was a tactical affair that developed into a sprint up to and after the last. As a two-miler stretching out, Sizing John was best placed to take advantage of how things unfolded.
If he has stamina to prove, he has yet to demonstrate that he definitely doesn't stay. His only other effort beyond an extended two miles was at the Aintree Festival (2m4f) where he patently under-performed in the manner of a horse over the top. That possibility was lent credence when he was again whacked at Punchestown a few weeks later.
More conservatively campaigned this season, he wasn't stopping in the Irish Gold Cup, but his price has halved from immediate post-race quotes of 20/1, and now fails to adequately accommodate the staying power issue.
Behind him that day were a clutch of Gold Cup aspirants, including Don Poli, More Of That, Minella Rocco and Road To Riches. More Of That might be the most promising of that bunch, the former World Hurdle winner showing more zest than since last year's RSA Chase, where he was an eight length third.
The RSA can ruin a good horse and, while it is to be hoped that is not the case with More Of That, the evidence thus far suggests, sadly, that it may be. He may have been flattered by his proximity before decanting Mark Walsh at the last and, again, 20/1 has very little leeway.
Minella Rocco also came down in the Irish Gold Cup, his exit much earlier, and he's failed to get round in his last two starts. That makes for unattractive wagering territory at around 25/1 unless you can get a faller refund concession. If you can, and if they went at it hard from an early stage, his victory in last year's National Hunt Chase showed he stays very well and can handle these undulations (notwithstanding that it was on the 'other' course here).
Cult hero, Don Poli, is slower than treacle and hasn't won since the heavy ground Lexus of 2015. If the monsoons arrived, he'd have a chance. That remains unlikely making 'Done Slowly' a pass for me.
And what to make of Road To Riches? He was a close third in the 2015 Gold Cup, just behind Djakadam; and filled the same placing in last year's Ryanair Chase. Since then he's clunked and flunked a half dozen times, failing to win and getting heavily beaten the last twice. Obviously that is unexciting form going into a race like this - assuming he does go - but his Festival performances have been very good. On his best form he could sneak into the frame, but it looks as though he's seriously regressive now.
Dodging the Irish Gold Cup and instead bagging the Thyestes Chase under a big weight was Champagne West. Quietly fancied for Festival success last year when trained by Philip Hobbs, he seemed too speculative a conveyance, falling and pulling up twice each, the last of which was a 'P' in the 2016 Ryanair Chase.
Since being rehomed with Henry de Bromhead, himself a participant in the ownership merry-go-round of last autumn, Champagne West has proved a far more assured leaper, winning his last two. The Thyestes in particular was impressive: it's a tough race to win and one which was the springboard for Djakadam's close second to Coneygree in the 2015 Gold Cup.
But this lad may appreciate soft ground, and he may not be quite good enough, and he may revert to his former errant-fencing ways. Too many questions to be overly excited by 16/1. Though, like Minella Rocco, if there's a money back faller concession, and the rain came, that would account for two of the three reservations.
Zabana was a disappointment when failing to jump off last year - through little fault of his own, in fairness - but he was readily outpointed in the Lexus with no obvious reason for that. He could be better in smaller fields.
That leaves two more worthy of mention, Bristol De Mai and Empire Of Dirt. Let's stay in Ireland and focus on the latter.
A winner at the Festival last year, when easily beating 21 rivals in the Plate, he then easily won the Troytown Handicap Chase, beating 24 rivals, off near top weight. He was a closing second to Sizing John when elevated in class in the Irish Gold Cup last time, and the extra emphasis on stamina that the Gold Cup brings will surely be right up his street.
If he were to line up in the Gold Cup, he'd have to be a player. Progressive and, as I discovered first hand at a preview last week, the first choice of a trainer - Gordon Elliott - who also has the 10/1 fourth favourite in the race.
But he's very far from a certain runner. There's no doubt that the trainer wants to go for the Gold Cup. There's equally no doubt that the owner, Mr O'Leary, wants to win his own race, the Ryanair Chase, with him. Impasse.
Happily for us, we have non-runner no bet to fall back on. 20/1 NRNB and a quarter the odds 1-2-3 is a fantastic play. The balance of probabilities is that we get our cash back. But, if he runs, he's going to be 8/1 not 20/1.
Meanwhile, Bristol De Mai brings dualist form to the table. The whippersnapper of the party at just six years of age, Nigel Twiston-Davies' charge is a strong stayer who oozed class in Haydock's Peter Marsh Chase two back. Since then, he ran below par behind Native River but was reported to have been wrong there.
He was second in the JLT Novices' Chase at last year's Festival, staying on over what may have been an inadequate trip. He has yet to be outside the first three in a dozen starts over hurdles and fences in France and Britain, although that last day third of three takes some of the sheen off what is an otherwise highly consistent CV. He is another, however, whose best form is with the mud flying. He wouldn't be a shock winner, still less a shock podium finisher, but nor is he especially for me... unless it rains.
I had hoped his stable companion, Blaklion, would warm up for the Grand National in this, as I felt he had place prospects at 50/1, but connections appear to have all but ruled that out.
Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017 Pace Map
Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017 Tips
It looks a wide open Gold Cup, a fascinating punting puzzle. The most solid option is probably 4/1 DJAKADAM, but his price now reflects that. Native River is extremely likeable and looks highly progressive this season but, again, the market has him pegged. I feel that Cue Card will drift on the day, his age a major issue in spite of a fine season-opening performance.
A horse I want to be with, non-runner no bet, is 20/1 Empire Of Dirt. There's a good chance he misses the race, but he's about twice the price he ought to be if showing up. And that's a risk-free proposition for us with NRNB in play.
If it rains, and if you can get a faller refund concession on the day, Champagne West could be interesting, as could Bristol De Mai, about whom there are less jumping questions.
1pt win Djakadam 4/1 bet365 NRNB, BOG
0.5 pt e/w Empire Of Dirt 20/1 1/4 1-2-3 Stan James NRNB