The Cheltenham Festival is little more than 60 days away and the countdown to the biggest race of them all begins in earnest with 31 entries revealed on Wednesday for the 2020 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.
We are set for further clues in the coming weeks, but what does the Gold Cup picture look like now - and who rates the pick at the current prices?
We consider six key questions before the big race on Friday, March 13.
Al Boum Photo – first successive winner since Best Mate?
Retaining the Gold Cup is no easy feat. Three-time winner Best Mate was the last horse to do so in 2004 and greats such as L’Escargot, Arkle and Cottage Rake are the only other successive winners since 1945.
The history books raise doubts, but Al Boum Photo is a lightly-raced eight-year-old who was well in command last year and you would hope he can produce a similar effort again this year.
A strong stayer, Al Boum Photo suffered interference on the first circuit in last season’s race while connections may ponder a more positive ride this time; such tactics went down well on his return and contributed to one of his better jumping performances.
He went really nicely at Tramore in a comparable performance to his victory in the same race last year en route to Gold Cup glory. The title holder warrants plenty of respect, though he has not been missed at 5-1 and was trimmed by the layers for winning as he should have done on New Year’s Day.
Will Clan Des Obeaux stay the distance this time?
Watch how Clan Des Obeaux landed his second King George
King George winner last season, King George winner this season. But will Clan Des Obeaux fully conquer the extended three and a quarter miles at Cheltenham this time around?
He faded into fifth in last year’s Gold Cup when pre-race doubts about his staying power were ultimately proved correct, but he shaped better than his 11-length defeat in fifth behind Al Boum Photo suggests.
Fairly prominent behind the pace-setters as Native River and Might Bite exchanged blows in the lead, Clan Des Obeaux looked to hit a slight flat spot just before the top of the hill before travelling nicely on the downhill run heading towards the straight. It is wise to thing he might just be ridden a tad more conservatively this time.
A year older and now stronger according to Paul Nicholls, his jumping is arguably the most assured of all the market protagonists and that will give him every chance.
The trainer’s assertion that his horse wants to be fresh is not completely backed up by the form book and going straight to the Gold Cup is a small question mark.
Clan Des Obeaux is yet to win in five visits to Cheltenham and, while commendable in this race last term, this is not his ideal test. He is expected to ultimately fall short again in what may prove a stronger race this time.
Which are the biggest potential improvers?
Kemboy is expected to improve for his outing in the Savills Chase on his seasonal debut
Kemboy proved highly progressive last year and had to prove himself from a ‘standing start’ on his belated return in the Savills Chase.
He more than passed the test, taking a grip for fully two miles and jumping particularly exuberantly early in the race. The way he shaped at Leopardstown suggests he could take a very significant step forward next time.
Delta Work beat Kemboy in the Savills Chase, bouncing back from his Down Royal flop and landing senior Grade One honours on just his second start in open company. His jumping still does not warrant absolute trust, but when he gets it right he takes lengths out of his rivals and he looks the type to benefit from another run before the Festival. Gordon Elliott suggested Delta Work will improve physically from Leopardstown, too.
The trainer’s horses were not fully firing at last year’s Festival, but Delta Work moved with real menace late in the RSA despite doing plenty wrong and, with a clear round, must be on the premises in the big one this year.
Talking of the RSA, Santini is the forgotten horse in the Gold Cup picture. Second at the Festival last year after a horrid preparation, he runs at Ascot later this month. However, 10-1 does not make much appeal.
Lostintranslation – Gold Cup dreams still alive?
Lostintranslation showed a good attitude to win the Betfair Chase
Lostintranslation was arguably the horse of this jumps season before Christmas – electric on his Carlisle return, novice form looking better all the time and a Grade One winner on just his second start out of novice company in the Betfair Chase.
He was flat last time in the King George, never displaying his usual fluency and throwing in highly uncharacteristic jumping errors. A breathing issue exacerbated by the soft ground was mentioned by connections afterwards.
Whatever the reason, the performance was out of character given the small field at Kempton, an unexacting gallop and his season beforehand. Lostintranslation has something to prove now, but the general evidence points more to an ‘off-day’ rather than long-term malaise.
The fact he moved threateningly from the back straight despite his poor round just hints at inherent class and 8-1 Gold Cup quotes from the 4-1 prices before the King George could prove a little premature. It is a shame we're now unlikely to see him before Cheltenham and such a preparation doesn't fully inspire.
One small thing to note – Colin Tizzard won the Gold Cup with Native River in 2018 but he’s been quiet at the last two Festivals before hitting riotous form at Aintree and Punchestown. He has saddled just three Festival winners from 80 runners in the past five seasons and his runners perform significantly below market expectation in that time (0.63 actual winners to expected winners).
Can anything emerge from left-field?
Bellshill narrowly won the Irish Gold Cup last year
Time is running out, though the layers might have taken a small chance with Bellshill at 50-1.
He was the pick of the Willie Mullins’ quartet last year after Irish Gold Cup success but made numerous early errors and was promptly pulled up before running below par again at Punchestown subsequently.
A hard race on unusually quick ground at the Dublin Racing Festival does seem a legitimate excuse. Only Envoi Allen and Klassical Dream won at both meetings last season – eight horses triumphed at both meetings after the inaugural 2018 fixture.
Bellshill made a perfectly acceptable reappearance in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown, looking particularly good during the first mile before reaching for the third-last. One of the first off the bridle then, he was fully eased after the last and shaped much better than his defeat by 24 lengths suggests.
Mullins expects improvement and the Irish Gold Cup – the race he won last year – looks the next port of call. He is not the likeliest winner of the Cheltenham showpiece by any means and no ten-year-old has won the race since the early 90s, but 50-1 is an overreaction to some modest efforts.
What is the Gold Cup play at this stage?
Watch a full replay of last year's Cheltenham Gold Cup
In an interesting market, some bigger-priced contenders are naturally vulnerable for win purposes but still look generous at the current quotes; Monalee at 25-1 is an example.
Of those at the head of the market, Kemboy appeals most at 7-1 with Skybet and 888sport. His return in the Savills Chase was particularly eye-catching and we can expect a significantly slicker article next time with that freshness out of him.
Even at this stage, he looks to boast a better chance than the current odds suggest.
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