Three horses head the Cheltenham Gold Cup betting market at 7/2 with Bet365 but who will triumph in the highlight of the Festival (3.30pm Friday, ITV)? The former dairy farmer Colin Tizzard saddles two of them, Cue Card and Native River, whilst Ireland’s champion trainer Willie Mullins sends out the dual Gold Cup runner-up, Djakadam.
Mullins has been uncharacteristically upbeat about his eight-year-old’s chances. He thinks that Djakadam was too young when he was beaten by Coneygree in 2015 and that a compromised race preparation affected his effort last year. Djakadam sustained a nasty cut that needed stitches when he fell in the Cotswold Chase and was on the easy list for some time in 2016. Djakadam was still only beaten four lengths by the highest rated chaser in training at the time, Don Cossack, aided by the premature departure of Cue Card who beat him 17 lengths a month later in the Betfred Bowl.
This season Djakadam started with a win in the Grade 1 Punchestown Chase in early December, beating Gordon Elliott’s Outlander a length. Outlander beat him two and a half lengths into third in the Lexus at the end of December but Mullins was pleased with his effort saying that with hindsight he could have been ridden slightly differently. His jockey Ruby Walsh probably blamed himself for getting the tactics wrong. Djakadam has not raced since but has reportedly enjoyed an uninterrupted preparation this year.
Mullins is hoping that it will be third time lucky for Djakadam but relatively quick ground looks unlikely to play to his strengths. Winning this race after finishing as the runner-up twice has only been achieved by one horse, The Fellow in 1994.
Tizzard might have saddled the clear favourite if Thistlecrack had not been injured but he thinks that his remaining pair come into the race with the best form. The yard claim that the eleven-year-old Cue Card still works with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old and is as good as ever but they are invariably bullish. Cue Card’s jockey Paddy Brennan has said that he does not race as keenly as he used to. That could be a positive, giving him a better chance of getting up the hill if completing over this distance or it could be an indicator that he is feeling the effects of his long career.
Cue Card was the second favourite to Don Cossack here last year and looked to be going well when he hit the deck for the first time three out. Tom Scudamore, Thistlecrack’s regular pilot, thought that Cue Card was his main danger in this race but, although not as dire as the otherwise venerable AP McCoy, Scudamore is a pretty poor tipster.
This season Cue Card was the hot favourite on his debut in the Charlie Hall Chase in October but was beaten three lengths into third. A lot of Tizzard’s horses looked to need their first run at the time and Cue Card tired in the last 100 yards so we can forgive him that defeat. Cue Card faced Coneygree in the Betfair Chase in November next time. Coneygree’s connections were worried about the heavy ground for his debut and they were right, he ran out of steam and was beaten 15 lengths by a race-hardened Cue Card.
In the King George on Boxing Day Cue Card was beaten by Thistlecrack. There was no shame in that at the time but he finished only a short head in front of the now disappointing Silviniaco Conti with the 153 rated Tea For Two (50/1) a head further back in fourth. Tizzard thought taking on Thistlecrack early did for his chances but Cue Card was found to have lymphangitis in a hock afterwards that could have accounted for his below par performance. In his latest run Cue Card won the Betfair Ascot Chase in mid February by 15 lengths, beating nothing but he jumped with his customary elan that was noticeably absent in the King George. His age is a concern but Cue Card could be a major player if he copes with the stamina test posed by the uphill finish.
His stablemate Native River is a very different prospect. The much-loved Cue Card is an ordinary looking bay who could easily go unnoticed in the parade ring but you could not miss this striking chestnut seven-year-old. He is rated 2lb below his stablemate but could still be improving.
Like Cue Card he was beaten at Wetherby on his seasonal debut but Native River has won his three starts since and they were impressive victories. He took the Hennessy in November and triumphed in the Welsh Grand National carrying topweight in December under Richard Johnson. Most recently he won the Denman Chase at Newbury in February, quickening surprisingly well for a horse often described as a ‘grinder’ after the final fence under the last minute replacement jockey Aidan Coleman. Johnson was so ill that he stood himself down after his first ride of the day.
Course form is all important at Prestbury Park and Native River has it. He finished a close second in the four mile National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup for amateur riders at the Festival last year. Johnson rode him for the first time in his next outing in the Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree in April. They won, beating Henri Parry Morgan three lengths.
Johnson and Native River are a formidable combination that have only been beaten once, first time out this season when Tizzard’s horses needed the run. Some experts believe Native River is best on soft but he has the action of a good ground horse and, not being the fastest on the gallops at home, just needs a scenario that will bring his stamina to the fore. He should get it here and has a massive chance of prevailing.
An Irish raider with realistic claims is Sizing John (9/1), now trained by Jessie Harrington after his owners, Alan and Ann Potts, decided to desert Henry De Bromhead. This seven-year-old has progressed since changing address and seems to enjoy being partnered with the superb horseman, Robbie Power.
Sizing John was second to Douvan on his first start for Harrington, beaten eight lengths over two miles one furlong at Leopardstown in late December. He was stepped up in trip to two and a half miles next time in January and beat De Bromhead’s 11/10 favourite, Sub Lieutenant,in the Grade 3 Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles.
In his third and most recent start for the new yard he won the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. It was his first try at three miles and he coped with it well, beating Empire Of Dirt three quarters of a length with Elliott’s more strongly fancied Don Poli in third. Sizing John also has decent past form here. He was the runner-up in the Arkle last year, seven lengths behind Douvan and finished the same distance behind him in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2015. He does not need mud to be effective and, while the extra two furlongs are unknown territory, he is an interesting each-way prospect.
Gordon Elliott’s phenomenal form at the Festival so far makes Outlander (9/1) worth a mention. Elliott admits that this nine-year-old is not in the same class as Don Cossack but he shares a rating of 168 with Native River putting him right into the mix. Outlander’s victory over Djakadam last time adds to his claims. The consensus is that he will get the distance but we do not have convincing course form as he fell in the JLT Novices’ Chase at the Festival last year and was beaten six lengths in the Neptune in 2015 but with Elliott anything is possible.
If we forgive Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Bristol De Mai’s (20/1) disappointing effort in the Denman Chase he has hopes of place money if whatever stopped him running his race then has been addressed. In his previous run in the Peter Marsh Handicap Chase at Haydock he won by over 20 lengths, looking a serious Gold Cup contender. On the downside he looks to need soft ground to be at his best and has a very rounded knee action so, although he is the most interesting outsider, you cannot follow him with a great deal of confidence.
Our Preview’s Cheltenham Gold Cup Betting Tip
As the Cheltenham Gold Cup betting suggests, this renewal lacks a star rated a distance above the field. The leading trio in the market are probably the most likely suspects but Djakadam is unlikely to be suited by conditions and Cue Card is up against it as a veteran. No horse over 10 years old has won this race since 1969.
- Our preview’s Cheltenham Gold Cup betting tip has to be NATIVE RIVER, back him to win at 7/2 with Bet365. With that firm if he does drift in the betting you will still get the longer odds.
Fiona Derek is our Reality TV and horse racing expert. The only time you won’t find her riding or mucking out a racehorse is when she is watching Reality TV or racing on the box.