TIZZARD SEEKS FIRST GOLD CUP TRIUMPH
Fourteen runners will line up in The Festival's showpiece race, the £575,000 Grade One Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, on Friday (3.30pm, March 17).
The Colin Tizzard-trained pair of Native River (3/1) and Cue Card (7/2) head the betting.
Native River will be ridden by champion jockey Richard Johnson, who is looking for a second Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup victory, 17 years after he last took the race on Looks Like Trouble.
Second in the 2016 J P McNamara National Hunt Chase, Native River has enjoyed an excellent season. He won the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in November, the Coral Welsh Grand National at Chepstow in December and the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury in February.
Cue Card, at 11 four years older than Native River, is a familiar face at The Festival. He won the Weatherbys Champion Bumper - a first Festival victory for his trainer - in 2010, and has run at the meeting four times since. He finished fourth in the 2011 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, won the Ryanair Chase in 2013 and finished second to Sprinter Sacre in the Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase in 2012. In 2016, he fell three fences from home in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup when disputing the lead, losing out on the chance of a £1million bonus.
This season Cue Card has won both the Grade One Betfair Chase at Haydock and the Grade One Betfair Ascot Chase. He will once again be ridden by Paddy Brennan.
Shortest-priced of the five Irish-trained runners is Willie Mullins' Djakadam at 4/1, runner-up for the past two years. Winner of two renewals of the Grade One John Durkan Punchestown Chase, including last December, Djakadam could only finish third to Outlander on his last outing in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown at Christmas. Mullins has never won the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, but has saddled the runner-up six times.
Outlander (Bryan Cooper), trained by the in-form Gordon Elliott, who won the 2016 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup with Don Cossack, is available at around 9/1. He fell in the JLT Novices' Chase at the 2016 Festival, and finished fifth in the 2015 Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle.
Elliott also runs 12/1 shot Empire Of Dirt (Jack Kennedy, who scored his first Festival winner on Tuesday). The 10-year-old took the Brown Advisory & Merribelle Stable Plate at last year's Festival.
Sizing John (9/1) won the Stan James Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February for Jessica Harrington and jockey Robbie Power, beating Empire Of Dirt by three-quarters of a length, and will renew that rivalry at Cheltenham.
Champagne West (16/1) completes the Irish quintet. Henry de Bromhead's Thyestes Chase winner will be ridden by last year's Randox Health Grand National-winning jockey David Mullins. There have been 23 Irish-trained winners of the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup to date.
Nigel Twiston-Davies, who trains just a few miles from the racecourse near Naunton, has declared 20/1 chance Bristol De Mai for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup. His form this season includes a win in Haydock's Peter Marsh Chase, but he finished third of three behind Native River at Newbury last month. Daryl Jacob takes the ride.
Jonjo O'Neill will be represented by the J P McManus-owned pair Minella Rocco (20/1, Aidan Coleman) and More Of That (12/1, Mark Walsh), both previous Festival winners. The former won the 2016 National Hunt Chase and the latter the 2014 Stayers' Hurdle.
Paul Nicholls, with the best record of any current trainer in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup with four wins since 1999, has Saphir De Rheu (66/1, Sam Twiston-Davies) in this year's race.
Lizzie Kelly will become the first woman since Linda Sheedy in 1984 to ride in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup when she partners Tea For Two, trained by her stepfather Nick Williams. The pair are priced at around 50/1.
Smad Place (50/1), who won the 2015 Hennessy Gold Cup and is running at his seventh consecutive Festival, represents Alan King and Wayne Hutchinson.
The field is completed by 66/1 chance Irish Cavalier, trained by Rebecca Curtis and ridden by Paul Townend. He finished fifth in the 2016 renewal.