CAN THE RIVER RUN GOLD AGAIN?
Sixteen runners will go to post in Friday's G1 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup, the high point of the Jump racing season. It will be the largest field since 2015, when the Mark Bradstock-trained Coneygree took the £625,000 race from 15 rivals.
Native River, victorious in a thrilling contest last year, bids to become one of only eight horses ever to win more than one Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup. Trained by Colin Tizzard, he will once again be ridden by the champion jockey, Richard Johnson.
Native River triumphed in an epic duel with Might Bite in 2018, and Nicky Henderson's charge is set to line up again under Nico de Boinville, who already has one Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup on his mantelpiece, courtesy of Coneygree. Might Bite has failed to shine so far this season and is available at odds of around 12/1, whereas Native River is considered a 4/1 chance.
Favouritism, however, is the preserve of Presenting Percy, who spearheads the Irish challenge at around 7/2. The Pat Kelly-trained eight-year-old, the ride of Davy Russell, won last year's G1 RSA Insurance Novices' Chase at The Festival by seven lengths and was also successful in 2017 in the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle. He has only run once - over hurdles - this season, so it will be fascinating to see whether he is as good as the market thinks he is.
One horse that has clearly proved himself on the track this winter is Clan Des Obeaux, trained by four-time Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning handler Paul Nicholls and available at around 9/2. If the G1 King George VI Chase and G2 Denman Chase hero gives Nicholls a fifth success in the race, he will equal Tom Dreaper's record as the contest's winning-most trainer. Twenty-year-old Harry Cobden will be in the saddle, seeking a first Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup success.
Irish maestro Willie Mullins may have 63 Festival winners to his credit, but they do not include a Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup - he has been second six times. This year he has four shots at the goal, with Kemboy (David Mullins) and Bellshill (Ruby Walsh) the most fancied of the quartet, which also includes Al Boum Photo (Paul Townend) and Invitation Only, the mount of Mullins' amateur rider son Patrick. Bellshill has already taken two Gold Cups - at Punchestown and Leopardstown - while Kemboy scored in a G1 at Leopardstown over three miles on his last appearance.
Kemboy was fourth in the 2018 G1 JLT Novices' Chase at The Festival, and the winner that day, Gordon Elliott's Shattered Love (Jack Kennedy), is back at Cheltenham on Friday. Shattered Love hasn't won since, but perhaps a return to the scene of her last triumph will do the trick. She is the only mare in the race and, if successful, would become the first of her sex to win the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup since Dawn Run in 1986 and only the fifth in the history of the race.
The remaining Irish representative is Anibale Fly, trained by Tony Martin for J P McManus and ridden by Barry Geraghty. He was third in this race behind Native River and Might Bite last year, and finished fourth in the Randox Health Grand National at Aintree a month later. Geraghty knows what it feels like to ride a Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup winner; he was aboard Kicking King in 2005 and Bobs Worth in 2013.
Closer to home, two Gloucestershire-based runners will attract plenty of support. Nigel Twiston-Davies was successful in the three-mile championship race with Imperial Commander in 2010, and Bristol De Mai represents him and jockey Daryl Jacob this time. The eight-year-old has won the past two renewals of the G1 Betfair Chase at Haydock, but fell last time out in the King George VI Chase at Kempton and his best run at Cheltenham was back in 2016, when he finished second in the G1 JLT Novices' Chase. And Tom George runs Double Shuffle (Jonathan Burke), who, although he has regularly picked up placings in good races, hasn't won since taking a handicap chase at Kempton in December 2016.
More fancied are Elegant Escape and Thistlecrack, who complete Native River's trainer Colin Tizzard's trio. Tom O'Brien takes the ride on Elegant Escape, this season's Welsh Grand National winner, who finished third to Presenting Percy in the G1 RSA Insurance Novices' Chase in 2018. Thistlecrack, victorious in the G1 Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle in 2016 and the King George VI Chase at Kempton later that year, as well as many other top races, looked nearly back to form when second to Clan Des Obeaux in the King George VI Chase in December. Tom Scudamore will, as ever, be in the saddle.
The Brian Ellison-trained Definitly Red (Danny Cook) has been in good form this season, with G2 wins at Aintree and Wetherby, although he was beaten when odds-on in a two-horse race at Kelso last time out.
The field is completed by Yala Enki, trained by Venetia Williams and ridden by Charlie Deutsch. The nine-year-old was third in the Welsh Grand National, five and a quarter lengths behind Elegant Escape, in December.
DAY THREE TRENDS AND LANDMARKS
Ireland has won seven of the eight runnings of tomorrow's G1 JLT Novices' Chase, which was introduced to the programme in 2011 and elevated to G2 status in 2014. Willie Mullins has been responsible for four of those winners and he runs Voix Du Reve (Ruby Walsh), Real Steel (Paul Townend) and Pravalaguna (Danny Mullins).
Davy Russell has ridden the last three winners of the G3 Pertemps Network Final, including leading Magners Gold Cup candidate Presenting Percy (2017), but at present he has no ride in this year's race.
Ireland has won the race for the last three years, but only eight times since the first running in 1974.
Only two Pertemps favourites have finished in the first six in the last 10 years. Fingal Bay (9/2 in 2014) was the only winning favourite in that time.
Albertas Run (2010 and 2011) is the only dual winner of the G1 Ryanair Chase to date, but Un De Sceaux (2017 winner) and Balko Des Flos (2018) both have the opportunity to join him.
Paul Nicholls won two of the first three runnings of the Ryanair Chase with Thisthatantother (2005) and Taranis (2007), but he has not won it since. He saddles four-time Cheltenham winner Frodon.
The field of 18 that has been declared for the G1 Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle is the biggest since 2006, when My Way De Solzen won a 20-runner affair.
Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle favourite Paisley Park was a first G1 winner for both Emma Lavelle and Aidan Coleman when successful in the JLT Hurdle at Ascot in December. Lavelle has had two Festival winners and Coleman one.
Veteran Faugheen has run only three times at Cheltenham, capturing the G1 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle in 2014 and the Unibet Champion Hurdle in 2015 and finishing sixth in the Champion Hurdle last year. He has won both of his completed races over the Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle distance of three miles and beat last year's winner Penhill at Punchestown in April. No horse has won both the Unibet Champion Hurdle and Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle.
Ireland has won the last three runnings of the G3 Brown Advisory & Merriebell Plate. Only last year's winner The Storyteller, who carried 11st 4lb, has won with more than 10st 13lb in the last 10 years. He was only the seventh winning favourite since the race was first run in 1951.
Paul Nicholls usually has multiple representatives in the Brown Advisory & Merriebell Plate but he has yet to win it. He runs Modus and Romain De Senam.
Willie Mullins has won all three runnings of the G2 National Hunt Breeders Supported By Tattersalls Dawn Run Mares Novices' Hurdle, the race celebrating his father Paddy's Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup winner. All three winners were hot favourites, but none of the stable's seven runners this time is likely to be market leader.
Jamie Codd, who won Tuesday's National Hunt Chase on Le Breuil, has won four of the last ten runnings of the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Chase. He rides Measureofmydreams for Gordon Elliott, for whom he was successful on Cause Of Causes in 2016.