The countdown to the Cheltenham Festival seems to start sooner every year but the highlight of the season suddenly seems a lot closer after entries for the £625,000 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup were revealed today.
You’ve got to be in it to win it and that accounts for 43 initially being in the mix – a record 24 of them being trained in Ireland.
Here are the eight key questions, plus answers, ahead of the jewel in the Festival crown.
1. Has Native River got what it takes to retain his crown?:
Watch a full replay of last year's Gold Cup
The Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase have provided many multiple winners but the only back-to-back winner of Gold Cup since 1972 has been Best Mate.
Clearly, chasing’s blue riband contest asks its participants to dig deeper than they ever have had to do before and, in so doing, perhaps they surrender a little bit of themselves. Or a lot of themselves in the instance of such as Don Cossack, the 2016 winner, who never ran again.
Last year’s renewal was compelling and gruelling in equal measure given the heavy underfoot conditions.
Native River, as genuine as they come, had to gallop hard for 7min 2sec and a flick of his tail in the final strides, after a great duel with Might Bite, indicated he resented Richard Johnson asking him to try any harder.
Twelve months earlier, Sizing John had won in a time of 6min36sec. The last of the ten horses to finish that day, Outlander, stopped the clock at about 6min49sec. That vividly shows what a slog last year’s race was.
The good news is that Native River does not seem to have suffered any adverse effects. He shaped well when runner-up in the Betfair Chase, and also when third in the King George VI Chase last time. Neither race, over three miles on decent ground, showed him to best advantage and as a consequence he is a general 5-1 to gain a repeat success.
He is on course to complete his prep in the Denman Chase at Newbury next month, which he has won for the past two years, and then will come the moment of truth back at Cheltenham.
The ground will be pivotal. Deep conditions will again bring his abundant stamina into play but a quicker surface, like in 2017 when he was third, will leave him vulnerable. Will he have the resolve to again stretch every sinew? Only he can answer that one.
2. Just how good is Presenting Percy?:
Our experts analyse the RSA Chase
We just don’t know but, for what it is worth, his official rating is 165, whereas Native River has a mark of 173. In other words, Pat Kelly’s eight-year-old would be in receipt of 8lb if the pair met in a handicap but, nevertheless, he heads the ante-post betting at about 9-2.
Native River, in his fourth season over fences, has probably reached his ceiling but that is not the case with Presenting Percy, a son of Sir Percy, the 2006 Derby winner. He progressed well over hurdles and impressed when winning the Pertemps Final at Cheltenham in 2017.
Last season, switched to fences, he established himself as the best staying novice around with an emphatic seven-length defeat of Monalee in the RSA Chase. It was a flawless display of jumping and galloping, Davy Russell easing him to the front from off the pace and seemingly winning with any amount in hand.
Presenting Percy has been absent since (there has been no suggestion of any setbacks) with possible runs in the John Durkan and Savills Chase being considered and then rejected. But while he has been idle at home, those he thumped have done their bit for his form.
RSA runner-up Monalee chased home Kemboy in the Savills Chase over Christmas, while Elegant Escape, beaten 14 lengths into third, landed the Welsh Grand National on his latest start (off a mark of 151) after earlier finishing runner-up in the Ladbrokes Trophy.
Ballyoptic, who was fourth, went on to be pipped in the Scottish Grand National (off a mark of 149) and Black Corton, the fifth, was beaten a couple of lengths by Definitly Red in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby in November, albeit in receipt of 3lb.
Meanwhile, Al Boum Photo, who fell two out in the RSA when seemingly held, gave 10lb and a beating to Total Recall on his return this term.
So the form is strong; we know Presenting Percy is in his element at Cheltenham; and we know he has plenty of stamina and will have had a light campaign. Plenty of boxes ticked but when and where we will see him reappear? The clock is ticking.
3. Is this the year that Willie Mullins ends his hoodoo?:
The serial Irish champion has saddled the Gold Cup runner-up on six occasions but didn’t get close last year when threw four darts at the board. Killultagh Vic and Total Recall were his principal hopes but neither completed.
This time he has a remarkable nine entries to juggle with Kemboy, a general 8-1 chance, being the shortest-priced of his challengers.
It was difficult not to be impressed with the way he slammed many Grade One winners in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas on what was only his eight start over fences.
The seven-year-old, given an enterprising ride by Danny Mullins, seemed to relish the good ground and similar conditions in March would certainly favour him, not least because he evidently has plenty of speed.
Mullins has indicated Kemboy will head straight to Cheltenham but his jumping has not always been without blemish and he will need to leap better than he did at the Festival last year when he tried to take a couple of fences with him en route to finishing fourth to Shattered Love in the JLT Novices’ Chase beyond three miles.
Al Boum Photo and Bellshill are available at 20-1 but should not be discounted. The former impressed on his return and has a progressive profile, while the latter shaped as if needing the run when fourth in the Savills Chase, having been the choice of Ruby Walsh.
But getting back to the original question: Probably not, even with a big squad to go to war with.
4. Will a wind op revive Might Bite?:
Might Bite gets back up in a dramatic RSA in 2017
Maybe. And the odds available – there is plenty of 16-1 on offer – dangle enough of a carrot.
I walked out of Cheltenham last March with ruined shoes, mud on just about every bit of clothing I possessed and one clear thought: if the ground is good next year then Might Bite must have a great chance of going one better in the Gold Cup.
A Rolls-Royce of a horse when in full flow, he was defeated by conditions and a tenacious four-by-four-Land-Rover-type of a thoroughbred in Native River.
Had Might Bite been roughed off for the season after that narrow defeat and then ran his two stinkers this term, it would have been easy to deduce that the race had snapped his spirit.
But just 27 days later he pitched up at Aintree, again on soft going, and oozed class in brushing aside Bristol De Mai and Clan Des Obeaux at the Grand National meeting.
Some have suggested that Nicky Henderson is clutching at straws in giving Might Bite more breathing surgery without any concrete evidence that it has been to blame for his capitulations in the Betfair Chase and King George, but he’s forgotten more about racing than many of will ever know and I’d be far less dismissive.
If the going is somewhere near good on March 15 then there is no way the dramatic 2017 RSA Chase winner can go off at 16-1.
5. Why is the emphatic King George winner Clan Des Obeaux available at double-figure odds?:
Watch a full replay of this season's King George
There is little doubt he was the best horse at Kempton and, still unexposed over staying trips with age on his side, it could be argued he is underestimated in the betting.
However, it is possible he had his optimum conditions at Kempton – a right-hand track, a bare three miles and decent ground – and the race did not deliver what it promised with Bristol De Mai and Waiting Patiently failing to complete; Native River not being at home on the track and Might Bite out of sorts.
Clan Des Obeaux’s previous exploits suggest he is up against it, especially as his four previous visits to Prestbury Park have all ended in defeat.
6. Is Sizing John the forgotten horse?:
Sizing John triumphs in 2017
I had a quick glance at the Betfair exchange before the market was suspended and he was available to back at 48, with £11 available to lay at 80.
That means that (a) yes, he is forgotten or (b) he hasn’t been forgotten but it seems nobody has any confidence in him doing a Kauto Star and regaining his crown. The traditional bookmakers quote him at 20-1 and nobody has been smashing down their doors to get on.
A long reign at the top seemed possible when he won the Gold Cup in fluent fashion in 2017, having previously landed the Irish equivalent.
And when he followed up at Punchestown before winning a fourth successive Grade One prize back there on his return last season, the sky did indeed seem the limit.
However, the wheels came off 18 days later in the Christmas Chase at Leopardstown and a pelvis problem prevented him defending his Gold Cup crown.
This season he has been the subject of positive bulletins but his continued absence rings alarm bells. It was initially suggested he could reappear in the Fortria Chase, on November 11, but he missed that gig and a range of other possible races have also slipped by without him.
The Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles, on January 20, was also mentioned for him but Jessica Harrington has indicated that might also come “too soon”.
It could be that he even makes his comeback over hurdles. Let’s hope he makes it back on track sometime soon. Still only nine, he remains with time on his side.
7. Which races will offer more clues between now and the big race?__:
Native River has won the Denman Chase for the past two years
January 20: Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles. Don Cossack won the 2m4f contest before going onto Gold Cup glory in 2016.
January 26: The BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham. Run over the same course and distance as the Gold Cup but the last horse to win it en route to the big one was Looks Like Trouble in 2000.
February 3: Unibet Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. A highly significant race in its own right and one that often has a bearing on events at Cheltenham the following month. Sizing John won it in 2017 before following up in the Cotswolds, while Lord Windermere contested the 2014 running before winning at Cheltenham.
February 9: Betfair Unibet Denman Chase. Native River used it as a stepping stone to glory last year and so did Coneygree in 2015. Denman himself won it in 2008 before enjoying his finest hour. At that time, it was known as the AON Chase.
February 16: Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park over 2m4f . Our Duke and Presenting Percy fought out the finish of last year’s running. The latter went on to win the RSA Chase in smooth style.
8. And, finally, you’ve got a free £20 bet on the race which you must use tonight – who do you stick it on?:
Perhaps it is the optimist in me, but the 16-1 available about Might Bite looks too big. I fancy he will be half those odds on the day.
Good horses do not generally become bad ones overnight and, in the absence of any leg or back problems, lack of oxygen filling his tanks would seem a rational reason for his subdued efforts this term.
If tinkering with his breathing allows him to recapture his best - and it has helped plenty before him - then he might easily bounce back with a bang. It is not as if, at the age of ten, that Father Time is sitting on his shoulder.
Alternatively, of course, he might just have had enough of racing. But that is factored into his price, and then some.