This year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, the most prestigious race in the National Hunt calendar, presents punters with a difficult decision: play things safe or back the unknown?
There is a case to be made for so many of the horses competing on Friday, but the basis for each argument is formed on even more speculation than ever.
Few horses have a Festival strike rate to match Presenting Percy’s, who is the Irish trainers’ flagbearer in this showpiece event. It has won on its two appearances at the Festival, first victory in the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle in 2017 then a stunning win in last year’s RSA.
It’s pedigree like this that makes it well-fancied in the betting, but there are serious concerns about its preparation.
It’s trainer, Patrick Kelly, has chosen to only run it once this season, a Grade 2 win at Gowran Park in January. The reason? Well, that’s anyone’s guess given Kelly does not speak to the media.
Kelly’s secrecy, Presenting Percy’s jockey Davy Russell admitted he does not even know where he trains, makes this a less attractive proposition than it perhaps should be. Kelly only likes to enter his horses in races if there is a genuine chance of something happening, there is no ‘oh well, let’s see, attitude about him, however the fact that it has not jumped over fences in public since the Festival is concerning.
“Pat is pleased with him,” revealed its owner, Phillip Reynolds, which is about as much insight its preparation as we have.
A venture away from the unknown takes us to Paul Nicholls’ Clan Des Obeaux, who could give the Somerset-based trainer a fifth win, taking him level with Tom Dreaper on the all-time list of trainer wins in the Gold Cup.
Keen for him to win is former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who has a stake in the its ownership.
In contrast to Presenting Percy, Clan Des Obeaux has enjoyed the best preparation of any horse with victory in the King George VI Chase followed by a Grade 2 win at Ascot in February.
“Is he good enough to win a Gold Cup? Who knows?” Nicholls said. “He is probably the best I’ve ever had him, but he will need to be.”
Meanwhile, Colin Tizzard-trained Native River has been given short odds to defend the Gold Cup for the first time since Best Mate in 2004. The soft ground last year allowed it to match the favourite Might Bite, and while the ground will not be as heavy as it was 12 months ago it will certainly be classed as soft and gives Native River as good a chance as any of winning.
“People keep telling me it is difficult for horses to win back-to-back Gold Cups,” said Joe Tizzad, Colin’s son and assistant, “but there is nothing showing us at home to suggest this horse is any worse than last year – and he is going to get his conditions.”
Native River joins Clan Des Obeaux as a safe selection, while Might Bite, Bellshill and Kempboy side with Presenting Percy as an unknown quantity.
Might Bite was last year’s favourite after winning the 2017 King George, but the soft ground did not suit it and it lost out to Native River by four lengths. The previous preparation was perfect, which is a stark contrast to how things have gone this time. After finishing fifth at Haydock in November and seventh in the King George, Might Bite was given wind surgery in early January. “He is as good as we can get him,” promises Nicky Henderson, although that statement seems a little hopeful.
Willie Mullins’ overflowing trophy cabinet is missing just one final piece: the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The Irish trainer has saddled the runner-up on six occasions, most recently Djakadam in 2015 and 2016, and brings a strong hand with four credible entries.
Bellshill or Kemboy stand as his best chance ahead of Al Boum Photo and Invitation Only. Bellshill may just stand a slightly better chance than stablemate Kemboy given Ruby Walsh has chosen the former as his ride.
Gold Cup’s are notoriously open affairs, that is to be expected when you pile together the best in the sport in one event, however, this one just feels like there is an unprecedented number of potential winners to choose from.
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