The countdown to the Cheltenham Festival is on and our racing expert John Doyle kicks off our build up by taking an early look at the Gold Cup contenders
The 2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup is the most open version of the race in recent seasons. A case can be made for numerous contenders, so we can expect a big field to line up for the race come 16 March.
Last season, Sizing John suddenly became the star of the Gold Cup field. After umpteen defeats to Douvan over two miles, Sizing John won the Irish Gold Cup and then turned in a fine performance at Cheltenham to be a decisive winner of the Gold Cup.
He travelled really well in midfield, jumping accurately and then powering through to win the race on the run to the last fence. He then followed up at the Punchestown Festival to complete a great year.
On his seasonal return, he won easily at Punchestown but then ran very poorly at Leopardstown over Christmas. He will not run again before the Gold Cup, so you would need to have confidence that he retains his ability.
Jessica Harrington also trains Our Duke, an impressive winner of last season’s Irish Grand National and talked about in similar regard to Sizing John.
He disappointed on his seasonal debut and will bid to get his career back on track in the upcoming Irish Gold Cup. Robbie Power will have to decide which horse to partner which may indicate which is perceived to be the better horse.
The current favourite for the race is Might Bite, trained by Nicky Henderson, who won the RSA Chase at last year’s Festival.
Following an easy win in an Intermediate chase at Sandown, Might Bite ground out a gutsy win in the King George on Boxing day, although the form isn’t too strong.
He has his quirks too and the image of him swerving around the hill before picking up again to win the RSA chase last year would not fill you with super confidence to be supporting him over the longer trip of the Gold Cup.
Minella Rocco ran on strongly through the field to finish runner-up last season and could be a strong contender again as his stable are now coming into form and they will bid to utilise his stamina and make it a big test.
Native River is also an interesting contender. Colin Tizzard has deliberately delayed his seasonal return to Newbury’s February meeting before a crack at the Gold Cup and Grand National.
Last season, Native River won the Hennessey & Welsh Grand National under big weights before his fine run in the Gold Cup.
All this as a six-year-old, it is logical to expect some improvement now as he gets older and stronger, so he should be a real contender.
He will be the freshest horse in the field. Bristol De Mai finished a well beaten sixth last season and there is no reason to expect any better this year.
This horse loves heavy ground on a flat track, conditions not likely to prevail at Cheltenham most years. For younger pretenders, a couple of Irish trained horses look particularly interesting, namely Coney Island and Road to Respect.
Coney Island is trained by Edward Harty and he speaks glowingly about his horse. His Novice chase form stacks up really well against class horses and having sustained an injury, he returned at Ascot before Christmas and won very easily in a small field race.
He is expected to run in the Irish Gold Cup and will need to match his trainer’s regard to put himself right in the Gold Cup picture.
Possibly the most underrated horse in the field is Road to Respect. Trained by Noel Meade for the Gigginstown operation. This horse has shown tremendous improvement over the last year and every time he wins a race, there seems to be this surprise feeling among the crowd.
Road to Respect ran away with the Brown Advisory Handicap Chase at last season’s Festival from a mark of 145.
He then beat Yorkhill at Fairyhouse, taking advantage of Yorkhill’s wandering ways. He returned with a win at Punchestown before going down narrowly at Down Royal.
He was a well-supported outsider for the Christmas Chase at Leopardstown before storming through to challenge and win, showing good staying power.
He will run again in the Irish Gold Cup and with his continuous improvement, this could be the horse to follow for this year’s Gold Cup.
If Sizing John recovers last season’s form, it is hard to see Robbie Power deserting him and it could be more of the same.
Richard Johnson will be keen to get Native River in a good jumping rhythm out in front and he could be a real threat if he has improved from his extended break. Road to Respect is the most interesting, though, as he has steadily improved with racing and continues to be underrated.
That all may change on the run to the line in the 2018 Gold Cup.