By Andy Stephens
The build-up to the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup gathered momentum on Wednesday when 38 entries were revealed for the £625,000 showpiece.
Previous winners Sizing John and Coneygree feature but you can strike Yorkhill from your calculations because he was not among a joint record 18 Irish entries. Below are five questions which could hold the key to the outcome on March 16.
Will Might Bite be able to justify ante-post favouritism?
Any horse who establishes himself as the leading staying novice chaser before winning the King George VI Chase clearly commands respect.
Might Bite has a big engine, big charisma and a big jump in him but he also has flaws and, as a rule, Gold Cup winners do not get away with having chinks in their armour.
The trip is a question mark, while the form/time of his King George win was nothing special. A length defeat of the 151-rated Double Shuffle, with the smart but exposed Tea For Two close up in third will frighten off nobody.
And then, of course, there is his apparent inability to keep a straight line when out in front at Cheltenham.
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Nicky Henderson’s charge almost threw away the RSA and two years earlier he had also veered over to the stands’ rail (watch above) when winning at Cheltenham over hurdles.
In a muddling year the Scorpion gelding seems the general 7-2 favourite by default. It could be he still heads the market on March 16, especially if he wins again beforehand, but you can hear already all the doubts being raised time and again at the endless preview nights and plenty of layers will look to take him on.
Gold Cup winners rarely retain their crowns - is Sizing John going to be any different?
Probably not. You have to go back to Best Mate (2002-04) to find the last back-to-back winner and, before him, L’Escargot (1970-71).
There have been so many fabulous champions in the past 50 years who we thought were destined to rule year after year but most have turned out to be one-hit wonders. Gold Cup winners have to stretch every sinew and it seems the majority leave a little of themselves out there on the hallowed Prestbury Park turf.
Henrietta Knight was criticised, even ridiculed in some quarters, for the way she campaigned Best Mate but her cotton-wool approach was pivotal. He had four runs in 2001-02, three in 2002-03 and three more in 2003-04. He always went straight on holiday after the Gold Cup and always had his final race before the meeting at Christmas.
Sizing John was a polished winner last year but then he had a tough battle when scrambling home at Punchestown the following month.
This term began well enough, with a smooth win when fresh, but the wheels came off big time at Leopardstown last time when he ran way below-par and finished distressed.
You can forgive any horse a bad run but tests revealed no physical ailments and perhaps the highly strung Sizing John now has a few mental scars.
It could be that 13 races over fences in little more than two years (ten in Grade One company) have left a mark. Best Mate’s 16 runs over the larger obstacles were spread over four years and, away from the Gold Cup, only four were at the highest level.
How many darts are Gigginstown going to throw at the board?
Probably four or five. Michael O’Leary, head of the Gigginstown House Stud operation, craves a victory in the race he sponsors - the Ryanair Chase 24 hours earlier - and in the past has diverted credible Gold Cup challengers to that contest.
We can expect the same policy but Gigginstown have seven Gold Cup entries to shuffle - Balko Des Flos, Disko, Empire Of Dirt, Outlander, Road To Respect, Sub Lieutenant and Valseur Lido - and in an open year an all-out assault seems likely.The Christmas Chase ended in a sea of Gigginstown silks (Racingfotos)
They were responsible for the first three home in the Christmas Chase, formerly the Lexus, at Leopardstown last month and five of the first six overall.
You could argue they lack an outstanding candidate - Road To Respect is the shortest-priced of their entries at 11-1 - but there can be safety in numbers.
The biggest owners in the game can afford to gamble more chips and Coolmore adopt a similarly attacking policy on the Flat, as shown in this year’s Derby when Aidan O’Brien was responsible for six runners and won with his apparent fifth string, 40-1 chance Wings Of Eagles.
Who are the “sleepers” and which races between now and the Gold Cup might they shine in?
Native River, third in the Gold Cup last year, has yet to reappear this term, while Empire Of Dirt, winner of the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate in 2016, is another who has not run this campaign.
Disko, third in the JLT behind Yorkhill before winning at Punchestown, has also been off since landing a Grade Two contest at Naas in early November.Native River has not been seen on a racecourse this season (Racingfotos)
Of that trio, Native River, a top-priced 11-1, clearly warrants close monitoring but his absence in the first half of the campaign with ligament trouble has to be a niggle.
The Denman Chase at Newbury on February 10 is an intended target for Native Niver, where one imagines he might well bump into Might Bite provided the ground is no worse than soft.
Cheltenham’s Cotswold Chase on January 27 may yield a clue or two - Whisper is among probable runners - and the Irish Gold Cup the following weekend on February 4 will make for required viewing.
You’ve got a free £20 bet on the race which you must place today. Who do you put it on?
Plenty of firms are going non-runner no-bet but some of the percentages they are betting to are 200 per cent and more.
I appreciate firms are trying to generate ante-post business but my advice would be to steer clear and wait for the day as the layers will be falling over themselves with inflated prices and specials to try and get our custom.
Oh, but hang on, I’ve just re-read the question.
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OK, well let’s throw caution to the wind and place the bet with a bookmaker not offering a safety net but, as a consequence, much bigger odds.
The Grand National, in which he finished fourth last year, is his main objective but there is almost a month between the races this season and that should be enough to persuade his connections to go for the double.
Blaklion has looked better than ever this term, making his stablemate Bristol De Mai, the subsequent runaway Betfair Chase winner, pull out all the stops in the Charlie Hall Chase before bolting up in the Becher Chase when backed as if defeat was out of the question.
If it comes up soft then so much the better but, regardless, the rugged Blaklion has all the attributes to give it a really good shot in a race where plenty are usually betrayed by a lack of stamina.
His mark of 161 suggests he still has a bit to find but perhaps not that much when you consider Double Shuffle, rated 151 going into the race, got so close to Might Bite in the King George.