The feature race on the final day of the festival is of course the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup and, as usual, it’s one of the most wide open races of the week.
Paul Nicholls thinks Sam Winner is overpriced. Jonjo O'Neill thinks Holywell is overpriced. Jim Culloty has said that last year’s winner Lord Windermere has been doing brilliantly at home. It’s the race that everyone believes they have a chance in.
At the head of the betting is Silviniaco Conti who is coming towards the end of a fantastic season. Since winning the Betfred Bowl in April of last year he has added the Betfair Chase and King George VI Chase to his collection in comprehensive style. The stamina issues that dogged him in 2012 seem to have been left far behind.
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However this is a horse who has not always looked comfortable at Prestbury Park. In 2013 he crashed into the fence when three out and looking primed for a strong finish. And last year he was in a prominent position throughout the race before drifting to the rail with very little left in the tank.
There’s no doubt though that he goes to Gloucestershire in far better condition than he has been previously and he now has two runs at the track under his belt. This could well be the year he makes it third time lucky in the Gold Cup.
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McCoy chasing fairytale farewell
Ever since his decision to retire and his barnstorming run in the Irish Hennessey Gold Cup, all eyes have been on AP McCoy and Carlingford Lough. The 19-time champion jockey has been in mesmerising form in the past month and his run on the John Kiely-trained nine-year-old on February 8 was arguably the pick of the bunch. He looked a beaten horse with a mile to go at Leopardstown but with McCoy on board he rallied and stormed home ahead of Foxrock and Lord Windermere; McCoy claiming the race for the first time in his career.
Carlingford Lough struggled in the Lexus Chase at Christmas but he had his excuses that day, most notably the ground. And despite the fact he has respectable form over in Ireland he has faced modest opposition. His one run at Cheltenham, the RSA Chase in 2014, saw him finish a creditable sixth under McCoy and with him on board the potential for improvement is clear for all to see. Bookmakers continue to slash his odds to the point where, at the time of writing, he is as small as 8/1 in places. He is certainly one to watch.
Don't count out Holywell
Holywell may have had an indifferent season but he is a two-time Festival winner and that must be taken into consideration. The eight-year-old won the Baylis and Harding Handicap Chase last year to add to the Pertemps Final from 2013.
Stamina on good ground is not an issue and last season he won on ground ranging from soft to good to firm. You sense that a couple of horses may need an off-day for Jonjo O'Neil to get into the winners enclosure but with a ringing endorsement from McCoy earlier in the week bookmakers currently have him at 8/1 across the board.
Road to Riches heads what is one of the strongest line-ups Gigginstown House Stud has had at the Festival in years. Retained rider Bryan Cooper has a superb selection of rides including Don Poli, Don Cossack, No More Heroes and Tell Me More throughout the week. Yet Road to Riches is arguably the strongest contender of them all.
Road to Riches deserves consideration
Yet another horse in the race who has been in scintillating form this year, his narrow defeat to Sizing Europe in the PWC Champion Chase was avenged by victories in the JNWine.com Champion Chase before taking the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown. Some may worry that the horse has never raced outside of Ireland and he is certainly thrown in the deep-end by having a crack at the Gold Cup but his form at home means he has more than earned the right to tackle the big-boys. Bookmakers are not taking any chances either; he is currently as low as 8/1 in places.
As previously touched upon, Jim Culloty has been impressed with the progression of Lord Windermere this season. 12 months on from his dramatic half-a-neck victory of On His Own, the nine-year-old put in a creditable jumping performance when third to Carlingford Lough in the Irish Hennessey Gold Cup last month. After a disappointing seventh in the Lexus and third in the Punchestown Chase, Culloty feels he has gone from strength-to-strength in the past month and Cheltenham is looming at just the right time.
Last year’s victory was also a moment of personal triumph for Davy Russell, who lost his retained rider spot for Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown operation in January 2014. And now the group has arguably their most formidable line-up since the turn of the Millennium, successive Gold Cup’s for the man from Cork would be just about as sweet as is gets.
Sam Winner also deserves a mention as connections have been quick to state that his current 25/1 price is wide of the mark. Jockey Sam Twiston-Davies was on board when he won a handicap chase at Cheltenham in November before partnering him to third in the Lexus. The fact that the jockey will be on board The New One, Dodging Bullets and Saphir Du Rheu, all leading contenders in championship races throughout the week, yet has still publicly backed Sam Winner in public is testament to itself.
There you have it. The big guns that are setting their sights on the big prize. And for all we know, someone not even mentioned in this report may yet snatch the championship race from under the noses of all the elite aforementioned (we haven’t even mentioned Coneygree).
As is the case year-after-year, it should be one hell of a race. A fitting finale to the most glorious sporting week in the calendar. Sit back and enjoy the ride.