Gold Cup favourite Thistlecrack met with defeat at Cheltenham last timePICTURE: Mark Cranham (racingpost.com/photos)
Gold Cup: one month until the big race
The Gold Cup, Friday's summit of the entire festival, has a more open look to it than was once the case and it could therefore draw in horses that otherwise might have contested the Ryanair, Grand National or, in at least one instance, the Champion Chase. The prospect of bankers in the Triumph, Albert Bartlett and Foxhunter could mean that plenty of festival-making roll-ups depend on whether to push all-in on what would have been many people's idea of the certainty of the festival this time last month.
The main contenders
Thistlecrack - best price 15-8
After the King George, the Gold Cup file was closed, presumed solved. There was some talk of a Dickinsonesque sweep by Colin Tizzard, but no doubt who would be cast as Bregawn.
Thistlecrack, a novice chaser but reigning World Hurdle champion, smashed the best of what Britain had to offer at Kempton and the next day's Lexus Chase, fought out by horses who apparently need a bit more help in the Grand National weights, didn't suggest Ireland would offer much stronger opposition.
We all know what happened next. Whether you frame it as the fallen god or the tragic hero, the Cotswolds Chase has been this season's pivotal act so far. It also cast doubt over Thistlecrack's something- but depending on who is asked, that something could be stamina, jumping or class.
If the Thistlecrack we thought we saw at Kempton turns up at Cheltenham, he will win the Gold Cup. But that is now a question, rather than a working assumption.
Native River - best price 9-2
It is apt that Native River completed his Gold Cup preparations in the Denman Chase, as there is no other chaser of the last decade that he more closely resembles.
Native River is a resolute galloper but no sluggard, a bold and skillful but unflashy jumper. Like Don Poli last year, he is the darling of those who sign up to the doctrine that the Gold Cup is won by the best-suited horse as often as it is by the most able.
It is the question of ability that always dogs these horses and Native River is no different. He won the Hennessy and the Welsh National off 155. In his Gold Cup-winning season, Denman won the former by half the track off 161.
Of course, these things are relative. It remains to be seen exactly what Native River, as near a certainty to run his race as there is in this year's Gold Cup, will have to beat.
Djakadam - best price 7-1
Djakadam has come off worse against both categories of Gold Cup winner, undone by the better-suited Coneygree and the more able Don Cossack in finishing second the last two years.
Despite defeat in the Lexus Chase over Christmas, when he allowed the other principals first run, he remains Ireland's best hope of winning a second successive Gold Cup following Don Cossack's retirement.
The doubts over those who have come up short against the best are self-evident and also borne out by history. If you discount Kauto Star in between his two wins, the last time a previous Gold Cup runner-up won the race was 1994.
Djakadam (right) finishes second in last year's Gold CupPICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)
Cue Card - best price 7-1
Cowed by Thistlecrack in the King George, where he was defending champion, Cue Card's bid to make amends for a late fall 12 months ago has got back on track while he has stood in his box.
Now 11 and older than any Gold Cup winner this side of the Moon landings, Cue Card makes his own statement in the Ascot Chase on Saturday.
Like Thistlecrack, he too has one standout performance this season to back up. Besides the Betfair Chase, Cue Card has looked a fading force. Victory at Ascot would have to come with a bit of sparkle in order to convince those that think he is a bit long in the tooth to win a Gold Cup.
The key question - Oasis or mirage?
Since Kauto Star came on the scene a decade ago now, exceptional Gold Cup winners have become the norm. The BHA, RPRs, Timeform and more all agree.
To keep this year more Don Cossack than Lord Windermere essentially relies on Thistlecrack and Cue Card, the two that, respectively, appear to and certainly used to possess that level of ability.
The evidence for the defence of Thistlecrack comes from a King George performance that really grabbed the imagination but never really had the collateral form to back it up and was duly given a sharp reality check at Cheltenham.
For Cue Card, it must be asked whether the Betfair Chase form was the brutal deposition of an unbeaten Gold Cup winner in Coneygree, or a victory by default over the unready and unsuited.
If either can answer in the affirmative, we may well get another Gold Cup performance to savour.
The Gigginstown-Phil Smith contretemps could have a significant effect on the Gold Cup picture, if only in the periphery. There is a reason why Outlander, Don Poli et al were being considered for the National, but they would have the class to feature in the Gold Cup if things fell their way.
Sizing John is the real springer from Ireland and as a new face to the three-mile scene he remains an unknown quantity. It is slightly fragmented logic to assume that because he was a lesser two-miler than Douvan that he will also prove inferior to the best stayers.
Britain's options are remarkably thin on the ground away from the Tizzard stable. Nigel Twiston-Davies has a couple, Bristol De Mai and Blaklion, who give the impression of having Grade 1 ability and Gold Cup stamina, but both have a little to prove after their latest starts.
Finally, there is Minella Rocco. He beat Native River in the National Hunt Chase last year and hints at top-drawer ability, but unlocking it might be the problem. It took arguably the ride of the festival from Derek O'Connor to get him home in front last year.