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Staying Chasers

'If the Cheltenham Gold Cup was tomorrow, who are the first four?', ended this piece when I wrote it in August 2016. I proudly announced that they were Thistlecrack, Don Cossack, Valseur Lido and Blaklion. Two missed the 2017 Blue Riband through injury, one had been retired and one - Blaklion - ran in the Grand National (finishing fourth). Tip top predictions...

In their absence, a different bunch fought out the finish of the latest Gold Cup; a combination of class acts and staying types. Sizing John reaped the benefits of not running in the same races as Douvan and proved his stamina over the three and a quarter miles, jumping well (if slightly to his right throughout) and always holding Minella Rocco. Sizing John followed up in the Punchestown equivalent and, having won the Irish Gold Cup before lining up at Cheltenham, will start the new season unbeaten over three miles or more.

His jockey Robbie Power, who - and this is one of the understatements of the century - hit the ground running in his new role as retained jockey for Sizing John's owners, the Ann & Alan Potts Partnership, explained when interviewed at the ITV Racing coffee table, that he told the trainer Jessica Harrington not to enter him in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but to go for the Ryanair or the Gold Cup. The rest is history, but there may well be more to come in the future. It's very sad that Ann Potts passed away during the Summer and won't be around for the next part of the Sizing John-story, for if steering clear of injury he looks likely to play as big a part in the next Gold Cup as he did the last.

Connections of runner-up Minella Rocco quickly decided to put him away for the season after what, in the end, was a fine effort to take the silver medal, although as I suspected would be the case beforehand, he was one of the first off the bridle. He got outpaced and had a lot to do at the second last, but went from fifth to second up the hill. It's surely only his handicap mark (officially 166 at the end of the season) that is stopping connections from going for the Grand National - even though he'd carry 11-10 at Aintree he'd be more suited to that than the Gold Cup, unless it came up soft.

Similar remarks apply to Native River, who made a lot of the running at Cheltenham and, with the prevailing good ground quick enough for him, ran well to hold on to third after the race took shape from two out. He's already bagged a Welsh National, carrying 11-12 at Chepstow last Christmas, and, like Minella Rocco, lacks the necessary pace to win the Gold Cup on any going better than soft, and would carry top weight in the Grand National, in which he'd probably do well even with the weight.

For a long way Djakadam looked like going one better than in the previous two Gold Cups, in which he chased Coneygree and Don Cossack home, but with the benefit of hindsight he had a view of the front far enough out - at the fourth last - and might not have lasted home even without his bad mistake two out.

Sizing John and Djakadam met again in the Punchestown Gold Cup at the end of the season and it was much closer between them than the three and a half lengths which separated them at Cheltenham, Djakadam producing the best jump at the second last but chucking in his one error per race at the last, Sizing John prevailing by only a short head. That confirmed what was already known about Djakadam - he's top class, even though he starts the new season with only one win to his name since December 2015. He'll be nine on New Year's Day and, if the 2018 Gold Cup turns out to be the race when he gets every fence right, could be a live contender.

The same probably can't be said for Cue Card though. At least it wasn't a million pound-fall when he crashed out at the third last for the second year running, but unlike in 2016 he'd been off the bridle for a while, and probably wouldn't have made the frame. He turns 12 in 2018 and it's only going to get harder, and I make his runner-up finish to Tea For Two in the Betway Bowl at Aintree on his last start some 10 lbs at least below his top-class best. No sleep will be lost over Tea For Two's winning effort, going a length up at the last and holding on grimly as Cue Card rallied - he's exposed and some 10 lbs below Gold Cup standard.

There could be two horses on the comeback trail lining up in the next Gold Cup. Coneygree has only raced three times since his finest hour in 2015, two of those in the latest season - a below-best, 15-length second to Cue Card in the Betfair Chase at Haydock on heavy going was his first defeat over fences. He missed the King George and the Gold Cup and was beaten again on his only subsequent start, but the ten year-old very much went down with honours in the Punchestown Gold Cup, trying to make all as usual and headed at the second last, but sticking to the task under pressure and only beaten a length and three parts into third, conceding a fitness advantage and three years to Sizing John, and two years to Djakadam.

Whether Coneygree will still be able to run like that aged 11 at Cheltenham in March is another matter, but his connections - and those of Cue Card, for that matter - can take heart. What A Myth was aged 12 when winning in 1969, so winning the Gold Cup at such an advanced age can be done - it just hasn't been done for the last 48 years.

The other comeback kid is, of course, Thistlecrack, the King George winner. His jumping gradually improved in novice chases - including his jumping of open ditches, which was hair-raising to say the least - and, taking his chance early enough in open company, he won the 2016 King George at Kempton without having to run to his best hurdles-figure with me (178). It was another top class effort when he was defeated for the first time over fences in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham's Festival Trials-card, the ill-fated Many Clouds rallying bravely to deny Thistlecrack by a head.

Trainer Colin Tizzard is hoping that Thistlecrack is back in action at Christmas, and he'd have a favourite's chance in the King George if he attempts a follow-up at Kempton on Boxing Day. The form of the latest renewal suggests that Cue Card and Tea For Two would have it all on, and the best of the Irish don't usually come over - their preferred target is usually the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown.

The Tizzard team may well have another string to their bow in the King George - dual Grade 1 winner Fox Norton. It was announced after he won over two miles at Punchestown in April that he'll step up to three miles this season - he might go well round Kempton's three miles, but the Ryanair over two miles five will surely be a more suitable Cheltenham target.

At the other end of the chasing age scale (theoretically), it proved to be the 2016 National Hunt Chase, the four-miler, that contained more 2017 Gold Cup candidates than the supposed novices' Gold Cup, the RSA Chase; however the latest RSA was won by the horse who might give Thistlecrack the most to do at Kempton. Indeed, Might Bite might well have posted a time comparable to Thistlecrack's if he'd stood up instead of falling at the last in the Kauto Star Novices' Chase over the King George-course and distance, having been the only one going comfortably with five to jump.

Might Bite beat stablemate Whisper to win the RSA and the Mildmay Novices' at Cheltenham and Aintree, politely waiting for him on the run-in in the RSA Chase having been 15 lengths clear after the second last, but such extreme idling might not be his biggest problem in the Gold Cup. A combination of ending up going too quick, plus company up front from Coneygree, could well do for Might Bite at Cheltenham. I can see him burning off the opposition at Kempton in the King George, but not in the Gold Cup.

The 2017 National Hunt Chase won by Tiger Roll looks weak form, so if we're looking for second-season chasers to get into the Gold Cup mix, check out the first two in the Flogas Novice Chase at Leopardstown in February. Disko defeated Our Duke in the two-mile five-furlong event, clear much of the way and not in danger although the runner-up closed on him on the run-in; after running third to the free-going Yorkhill in the JLT at the Cheltenham Festival, sticking to his task,he then surprised - nay, shocked - me by winning over three miles in the Champion Novice at Punchestown. He often front-runs but doesn't need to lead, and as he acted round Cheltenham fine in the JLT, I'm wondering where he'll end up at the next Cheltenham Festival. He'd shake up Un De Sceaux in the Ryanair, but might now be worth his place in the Gold Cup.

What about Our Duke himself, though. A stable companion of Sizing John, his lack of pace was exposed in the Flogas - he'd earlier beaten Disko, as well as the promising Coney Island, in the three-mile Grade 1 novice at Leopardstown over Christmas. Over an even longer trip still, he had his finest hour to date when not just winning the Irish Grand National, but utterly trouncing the opposition in the Fairyhouse showpiece - 14 lengths the winning distance over Bless The Wings, to whom Our Duke gave 16 lbs. He was the only one on the bit turning in, and on the run-in he doubled the ground he was ahead by jumping the last. A Gold Cup winner disguised as a handicapper? Possibly.

Jessie Harrington, one of the most popular trainers, training the first two in the 2018 Gold Cup - now that would break Twitter.

If the 2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup was tomorrow, who are (or maybe aren't) the first four?
Sizing John
Our Duke

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