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This division could do with a boost in the 2018/19 season, and it's hard to know where it's coming from.
In what turned out to be an uncompetitive Cheltenham Gold Cup, Native River and Might Bite were the first two over the first fence, they were the first two after the first circuit and they were the first two - and the only ones with a chance - over the last, and with the ground - officially 'soft, heavy in places' - in his favour, Native River found much more up the hill.
The time of the 2018 Gold Cup was 26.5 seconds slower than Sizing John's 6:36 in 2017, and behind the first two, for me it's nothing but holes in the form. That may be a bit harsh on the third Anibale Fly, who went on to run fourth to Tiger Roll in the Grand National, but there was little else going on behind. Fourth Road To Respect shaped well to a point but didn't stay on the ground, fifth Djakadam is now retired, and neither Cotswold Chase-winner Definitly Red nor Edwulf, surprise victor of the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, turned up on the day.
Although I got my fingers burnt in doing so in 2018, I'm going against Native River again in what will be the first Magners-sponsored Gold Cup. Reasons? Same as last year - the likelihood of good ground, and he's not a class act who travels. Reportedly he'll start in the Betfair Chase at Haydock, and it goes without saying that that race is the most likely of his big targets to be run on soft ground.
I've warmed to Might Bite to an extent. Having been all against him after his trying to get out of winning the RSA Chase in 2017, he starts the new campaign with only one defeat - the Gold Cup - in his last seven starts, stretching back to February 2017. He was 6/4 favourite to win the King George, did so in typically unimpressive fashion from Double Shuffle, and at Cheltenham nothing was travelling as well as him turning for home. He was only a neck down at the last, but Native River found much more.
As has been already suggested, the going played a significant part in the finish, with first Road To Respect (every chance from four out to the next) then Might Bite checking out after travelling well and looking like they'd go close. On better ground Might Bite will have a strong chance of going one better. The better the race the better he is - if he ran against selling platers, he'd only win by a length at the most - but don't be surprised to see him going for the £1 million-bonus himself.
On The Comeback Trail (Obligatory Annual Use Of That Phrase)
Because there's always at least one who's been on the easy list for a while, then reappears. Guess what, there are two this season.
The closer to Cheltenham a setback occurs, the worse it is for connections, and the news broke on the evening of March 8th that defending Gold Cup-winner Sizing John had sustained a hairline fracture of his pelvis, and had to miss Cheltenham.
Things started smoothly enough with a comfortable defeat of Djakadam in the John Durkan Memorial at Punchestown in December, but it all started to go wrong when he was tailed off in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase. He made mistakes, was off the bit with four to jump, struggling at the second last and well held when making his final error at the last. Coming 18 days after the John Durkan, it was a quick-enough reappearance.
It's tough to come back, but he'll be nine next March - young enough to play an active part in another Gold Cup. Expect him to be given more time between his races, and if he gets back to his best, he's a viable alternative to Native River, who he had back in third when winning it in 2017.
Favourable noises were emanating from the Tizzard stable at their open day on August 27th that Thistlecrack, the 2016 Stayers' Hurdle and King George winner, is now over the problems that restricted him to two starts last season and caused him to miss the 2018 Festival.
With the benefit of hindsight, he had a race harder than ideal when chasing home Many Clouds in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in January 2017. Neither flinched in an epic duel. Many Clouds paid the ultimate price, while Thistlecrack missed the Festival for the first time. Connections won't want to complete that particular hattrick, but he'll be 11 in 2019, and it's now 49 years since one of that age won the Gold Cup.
The best staying novice chasers last season were Irish-trained, and they went one-two in the latest RSA Chase, Presenting Percy travelling smoothly under a hold-up ride, getting a split to chase the leaders on the bend, leading at the second last and putting seven lengths between himself and Monalee. Not seen out again, he needs to make 20 lengths of improvement to make up into a Gold Cup-horse, but the style marks of his RSA-win suggest that there's a lot more to come. That said, he doesn't deserve to be as short as 6/1 in the ante-post list, the best available towards the end of August.
The RSA Chase would have been a one-two-three for the Irish but for Al Boum Photo's fall at the second last. Forwarding this one as a potential Gold Cup-horse comes with risks - firstly he's only won two chases, and more pertinently he's only completed three out of his six chase starts.
However it's his post-Cheltenham record that marks him down as a horse with potential. Firstly there was a good win over Shattered Love, with a strong field behind including Festival winner The Storyteller, in the Ryanair Gold Cup at Fairyhouse over Easter. On the back of that he looked a leading contender for the Champion Novice Chase at the Punchestown Festival. Long story short - that's the idea, anyway - he was left with every chance when Monalee fell two out, and was being challenged by the ill-fated Finian's Oscar when Paul Townend had his brain-freeze and steered Al Boum Photo round the last, carrying his rival out. He would have been decisively beaten behind Presenting Percy if he'd stood up at Cheltenham, but let's see where we are with him when he reappears.
This may or may not be original - maybe someone's already come up with what I'm about to throw at you, but if they have then I haven't seen it.
The Queen Mother Champion Chase-winner Altior has now won at three successive Cheltenham Festivals, adding the two-mile championship to the 2017 Arkle and the 2016 Supreme Novices' Hurdle. And yet, at no stage of the Queen Mother did he look comfortable - going worst of those in contention with three to jump - and it was only between the last two, when he took Min's measure, that he looked as though he'd win.
What is sometimes the case when they run like that, is that they are crying out for a longer trip. Maybe the Ryanair is where he'll end up, but he'd go close in the Cheltenham Gold Cup were he to run in it and match his best on my ratings of 178. Offers in the region of 50/1 are tempting.
If the 2019 Cheltenham Gold Cup was tomorrow, who are the first four?
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