All the hot views as Might Bite bids to hog the limelight in the right way
Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase | Grade 1 | 3m2½f, New | | 5yo+ | ITV
He has the class but he has his kinks. That has been the heart of the winter puzzle over Might Bite’s Gold Cup credentials.
But the rain that has given Cheltenham its wettest festival ground since the 1980s has added another dimension to the equation: can he handle the surface?
Last year’s dramatic right-turn towards the stands when miles clear in the RSA Chase and the astonishing recovery to get back up past Whisper turned Might Bite into arguably racing’s most fascinating horse.
He has been perfectly behaved in two victories this season, in a graduation chase at Sandown and the rather more testing waters of the King George.
But his length defeat of Double Shuffle at Kempton was less exuberant than some might have hoped and came on the softest ground he had encountered, apart from in a Newbury bumper.
Trainer Nicky Henderson, who knows what it takes to win a Gold Cup, having landed it with Long Run in 2011 and Bobs Worth two years later, said: “Everything has gone to plan since the King George and I never wanted to run him before this.
“I'm worried about the ground and the extra two and a half furlongs as well. But he's been more straightforward and good this season.”
One plus for Might Bite is that the Gold Cup is contested on the New course, which is further from the stands than the Old course, on which he won the RSA last season.
The question is how well he will be going when he gets there.
Pros Potentially the classiest horse in the race, with the RSA Chase and King George on his CV
Cons Doubts about how he will handle the ground, while he has to prove he has ironed out his eccentricities at Cheltenham
Native River 'better than last year'
He peaked in the winter last season with victories in the Hennessy Gold Cup and Welsh Grand National. But after Native River finished third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup 12 months ago the new plan was set by Colin Tizzard: get him to peak next spring.
The Tizzard yard was not in its finest form when Native River found Sizing John and the fast-finishing Minella Rocco too good for him in last year’s race. But it was still a smart run that told Tizzard he had a Gold Cup-class horse on his hands.
It was 11 months before Native River saw a racecourse again, in Newbury’s Denman Chase, when a defeat of Cloudy Dream and Saphir Du Rheu showcased his attributes as he made all, jumped well and stayed on strongly to win by 12 lengths.
Tizzard said: “He’s a fresh horse and I think he’s a better horse this year than he was last. He’s coming into it with a lovely preparation.
“The Irish are very strong this year, but I don’t want to be negative. This is the biggest chance I’m ever going to get of winning the Gold Cup. Cue Card fell in the race when he was on the bridle, but this is a completely different horse. He’ll be grinding it out.”
Native River will be ridden again by Richard Johnson, who is seeking a second Gold Cup to add his victory on Looks Like Trouble in 2000.
Tizzard added: “We’ve had quite a bit of rain at home, and so has Cheltenham. It may or may not play to his advantage. But they're on the New course and I’m sure it will be just soft ground and that will be ideal for him."
Pros Strong stayer with proven course form who jumps well and could still be improving after a light campaign
Cons May find one or two new faces improving past him
Our Duke 'seems in great form'
Jessica Harrington and Robbie Power are back at Cheltenham chasing a second consecutive Gold Cup victory, with Our Duke carrying their hopes following the defection of last year's hero Sizing John, who suffered a setback last week.
Our Duke, who trounced his rivals in last year's Irish Grand National, winning by 14 lengths, will be making his festival debut on his first visit to Britain and Harrington reported the eight-year-old in tip-top shape for his tilt at Gold Cup glory.
She said: "Our Duke travelled over very well. He had a good look at the place when he arrived but has settled in well and is eating and drinking. All's good with him and he seems in great form."
Our Duke underwent minor surgery on his back after flopping on his reappearance at Down Royal in November before finishing fourth in the Irish Gold Cup last month.
The ground was good to yielding at Fairyhouse when the Cooper family's crack chaser won the Irish Grand National, but it was heavy when he achieved his most recent success in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park.
On that occasion he gave 7lb and a length beating to Presenting Percy, who franked the form on Wednesday when delivering an impressive performance to win the the RSA Chase by seven lengths.
Pros Impressive winner of the Irish Grand National and form of recent Gowran Park win boosted by Presenting Percy landing the RSA Chase in good style
Cons While basically a good jumper he can make the odd mistake
Definitly Red has ground to suit
Brian Ellison has his first runner in the Gold Cup and his horse's chances of making a winning debut have heightened with every drop of rain falling on the Cotswolds.
His nine-year-old won a bumper at the course three seasons ago but his key piece of Cheltenham form came in January, when he powered through the heavy ground to see off American by eight lengths in the Cotswold Chase under Danny Cook.
It looked long odds-against that the kind of conditions in which he thrives would be repeated at the festival. But as the likelihood has grown so his odds have shrunk.
Ellison said: “We always thought he was a good horse and he showed that when he won at Aintree earlier this season and then at Cheltenham. He’s always at this strongest over the last three fences and it should be tailor-made for him.
"It’s a hard race. The form of Our Duke’s win over Presenting Percy looks very good now after the RSA, and Native River will like the ground. I’m not sure about Might Bite.
“I don’t think we’ll be far off the pace. I don’t know who will make it. Maybe Native River or Might Bite. But the ground is in our favour and he’s in good form.”
Pros Will love the testing ground and guaranteed to be staying on at the finish
Cons This is a far tougher race than the Cotswold Chase he won
Ground an asset for Djakadam
Willie Mullins will saddle four in his quest to break a Gold Cup hoodoo that has seen him depart with the runner-up on six occasions.
Florida Pearl (2000), Hedgehunter (2006), Sir Des Champs (2013) and On His Own (2014) all hit the crossbar before Djakadam finished a brave second in 2015 and 2016. A blunder two out cost him valuable momentum last year, when he finished fourth, beaten just three and a quarter lengths.
Second to Sizing John in the John Durkan on his reappearance, he left a dismal Christmas Chase outing behind to keep on for third in the Irish Gold Cup under big-race rider Patrick Mullins.
"He has course-and-distance form and hopefully the slower-than-usual ground can help him get home in front," said Mullins, who will be having his third ride in the race. "I can't wait to throw my leg over him."
Ruby Walsh had committed to Killultagh Vic before being ruled out of the remainder of the festival when he aggravated an old leg injury on Wednesday. The market agrees he is the pick of the Mullins quartet at 10-1, and Paul Townend has switched from the Ladbrokes Trophy winner Total Recall.
Conqueror of Thistlecrack in a Grade 1 novice hurdle at Punchestown three years ago after winning the conditional jockeys' hurdle here, the nine-year-old then won his first two chasing starts before being sidelined for nearly two years. He won on his comeback at Punchestown and looked the likeliest winner when he departed at the last fence in the Irish Gold Cup.
He clearly has a massive engine but lacks experience. While his jumping will need to be more assured, the slow ground should aid his chances.
Total Recall has improved considerably since joining Ireland's champion trainer. He won at Newbury off a mark of 147 and is 9lb higher now, so he still has a bit to find in this grade, which isn't to say he couldn't keep improving. He stays well and warmed up for this with an easy handicap hurdle success.
Bachasson has won Listed chases at Thurles and Tramore in impressive style. This is a major step up but, again, he will at least handle the ground.
Rest of the field . . .
Edwulf tugs at the heartstrings
Arguably the most heartwarming win would be for the Joseph O’Brien-trained Edwulf, who crowned his incredible recovery after collapsing on the run-in in last year's National Hunt Chase with a heroic Irish Gold Cup victory under Derek O'Connor.
He had pulled up at Leopardstown previously, but has now won on his last three completed starts.
O'Connor will be seeking to become the fifth amateur rider to win the race, the latest being Sam Waley-Cohen in 2011 aboard Long Run.
Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus, said: "He was great at Leopardstown. He travelled well and jumped great and got the job done.
"He'll enjoy the ground and Joseph is very happy with him."
Meade delighted with Respect
Harbour Pilot (2003 and 2004) and Road To Riches (2015) conspired to finish third in this on three occasions for Noel Meade, who has unearthed another live contender in Road To Respect.
By the same sire as Road To Riches and out of a half-sister to the 2014 Galway Plate and Lexus Chase winner, Road To Respect's only defeat in four starts since his decisive win in handicap company here last year came when he was narrowly denied by Outlander at Down Royal in November.
He has since bounced back with a fine victory in the Christmas Chase and has the right profile for this as an improving seven-year-old.
"He's travelled over well and settled in great," Meade said of the two-time Grade 1 winner.
"I couldn't be happier with him and he's done everything right up to now. I'd prefer it if the ground was better but he's won on soft. It's not a plus, but we don't really know what the ground will be like on Friday afternoon, so we we'll just have to wait and see."
American has 'come forward'
Defeat to Definitly Red in the Costwold Chase suggests the Harry Fry-trained American has plenty to find. But the eight-year-old travelled well throughout the race and Fry thinks there is more to come from a horse supplemented at a cost of £27,500.
He said: “He seems to have come forward since the run in the Cotswold Chase, which he's entitled to as it was his first proper run of the season.
"I'm delighted with showers so it doesn't dry out.”
Anibale Fly a 'hopeful' choice for Geraghty
Of JP McManus's duo, Barry Geraghty has eschewed Edwulf for Tony Martin's Anibale Fly, a decision he described simply as a "hopeful" choice.
A faller in the Irish Gold Cup, Anibale Fly dotted up in the Paddy Power Chase previously and should enjoy the underfoot conditions.
Frank Berry, racing manager to the owner, said: “After winning the Paddy Power very impressively he didn't travel the last day for some reason.
"He jumped as well, as he normally does until he fell, but he's been in great form since, won't mind the ground and he'll get the trip. He's an outsider, but it wouldn't be a big surprise if he ran a good race."
Outlander loves the mud
Gordon Elliott won the race for Gigginstown House Stud when Don Cossack soared to victory in 2016 and has mud-loving Outlander for the same owners this time.
Beaten 51 lengths in tenth last year, the ten-year-old will be vying to add to Jack Kennedy's growing big-race haul with a win in the sport's most prestigious event.
Since beating Road To Respect at Down Royal Outlander was held in third behind the same horse at Christmas and just got collared by Edwulf in the Irish Gold Cup.
"It's very open and competitive and, while Leopardstown seems to be his track, he's in good form," Elliott said. "Hopefully he'll run better than he did when only tenth in the race a year ago."
Tea For Two bids to make amends
Last year Lizzie Kelly’s historic moment of becoming the first female jockey in 33 years to ride in the Gold Cup was over quickly when her mount Tea For Two unseated her at the second.
The pair rebounded from that effort to win the Bowl at Aintree, while they were also third to Might Bite in the King George. Outside that, his form has proved rather patchy.
Kelly said: “He’s great. I’m really happy with him and with how he’s been going at home; he looks particularly well at the moment.
“It was a difficult day last year as I didn’t have the opportunity to ride in the race at all. I’m looking forward to taking part and being able to enjoy the race.”
Saphir Du Rheu 'has it all to do'
Last year’s Gold Cup fifth was well beaten by Native River on his only start this season.
Trainer Paul Nicholls said: “He's improved enormously for his run at Newbury – he needed it badly. He's got it all to do, it looks a competitive race.”
Is Shantou ready to fly again?
A decision on whether the eight-year-old is turned out three days after he got to within a neck of beating Coo Star Sivola in the Ultima Handicap Chase will be made on Friday morning.
Trainer Richard Hobson said: “He’s in A1 condition and has come out of the race in great order, but I have to speak to the owner. With the Grand National in mind we have to think what is the best option."
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