Your ultimate guide to Gold Cup day at the Cheltenham Festival
This is the moment. It is one that unites all those who breed, buy, own, train, ride or care for jumps racehorses, and all those who spend hard-earned money to pass cold, wet, windy afternoons pursuing their passion. They and we revere this race, just as we revere the animals whose labours lead them to its starting line.
There is nothing so noble as the staying chaser. There are none so majestic as those who conquer the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Racing's richest roll of honour, one graced by legends such as Arkle, Best Mate, Desert Orchid and Kauto Star, will again be added to.
Twelve months ago the name of Native River was etched into the annals following one of the most awe-inspiring duels any of us had seen for many a year. On that memorable afternoon the white-faced warrior was the very embodiment of courage. Such is the depth of this Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup, the 91st played out at the foot of Cleeve Hill, a similarly Herculean effort may be required.
It is impossible to be confident who will start favourite, let alone who will triumph.
For much of this strange season, one in which rain and mud had been rarely sighted until this marvellous week arrived, the horse heading the market has been Presenting Percy. Twice before he has visited the festival and twice he has returned home to County Galway victorious, most recently after a tour de force display in last year's RSA Chase.
What concerns some is the fact Davy Russell's ally has not jumped a single fence in public since that day, his sole subsequent outing having been in a hurdle race that was won convincingly.
Yet if he is the horse who is seldom sighted, he is trained by a man who is very seldom heard, even in the moments after Cheltenham triumph last year. Some consider that regrettable, some claim it adds an air of mystery. Surely, however, Gold Cup glory would loosen Pat Kelly's tongue.
The contrast with Paul Nicholls could not be greater. There is not a trainer in Britain or Ireland who so loves to talk about his horses. He is rightly admired for that openness and admired even more for his training prowess, one that has brought him this prize on four occasions.
On Wednesday Nicholls unearthed a Gold Cup horse of the future in Topofthegame. In Clan Des Obeaux he has a Gold Cup horse of the present, a King George champion who then ambled around Ascot in effortless fashion. As his trainer might say, that was just the job. If this becomes another job well done, Nicholls will equal Tom Dreaper as the Gold Cup's most successful trainer.
Remarkably, Ireland's greatest trainer has never won a contest that has been positively cruel to him in the past. Six Gold Cups have finished with Willie Mullins responsible for the horse in second. His desire to change the course of history shows no sign of waning and he fields four runners, headed by Bellshill and Kemboy, in his bid to end the hoodoo.
That gives Mullins a quarter of the field, placing him numerically just in front of Colin Tizzard, whose Richard Johnson-ridden defending champion Native River – an eyecatching staying-on third in the King George – is joined by former superstar hurdler Thistlecrack and Elegant Escape.
When you add in last season's valiant second Might Bite, the occasionally outstanding Bristol De Mai and high-class mare Shattered Love, not to mention a handful of other class acts, it becomes ever clearer we have a Gold Cup to savour.
From one March to the next, whether professionals, punters or purists, we fixate on this moment. Thrillingly, it is almost upon us once again.
Erec looks a proper Irish banker
The fact a horse like Sir Erec has spent his winter jumping hurdles is a welcome surprise. The fact he is red-hot favourite for the JCB Triumph Hurdle is no surprise at all.
The son of Camelot signed off from the Flat with an excellent third to Stradivarius on British Champions Day. That earned the then Coolmore colt a near Group 1-class Racing Post Rating of 114, but what followed was a transfer from Aidan O'Brien to son Joseph and into the colours of JP McManus.
In mid-December Sir Erec was laid at 25-1 for the Triumph by Paddy Power. He is now on the verge of going odds-on and poised to trigger a seven-figure outlay from that firm alone, his prohibitive odds the result of a dazzling display at the Dublin Racing Festival.
With his stable's Band Of Outlaws having won the Fred Winter Hurdle – also for juveniles – on Wednesday, confidence can only have grown, even allowing for the fact Mark Walsh's mount suffered a stone bruise last week.
Sir Erec is the very definition of an Irish banker. Should he do what he is expected to do, Gold Cup day will begin with a very big bang.
Pacha chases piece of festival history
Nine horses have won the St James's Place Foxhunter Chase twice, but no horse has won it three times. The betting suggests Pacha Du Polder will struggle to break the mould – but the betting suggested he should never have won it at all.
In 2017 the Stewart family's veteran was a 16-1 shot under Bryony Frost. Last year he was an even bigger outsider at 25-1, when partnered by Harriet Tucker. He chases his hat-trick – one that might already have been completed given he finished well to be a close fifth under the inexperienced Victoria Pendleton in 2016 – following a dismal seasonal reappearance, but the 12-year-old has shown before he must never be ruled out.
Tucker is again in the plate for what is set to be the horse's swansong. Trainer Paul Nicholls said: "He's run three good races the last three years. He comes alive at Cheltenham and it would be no surprise if we see him run very well. Cheltenham seems to bring the best out in him."
Martin Pipe becomes finale for first time
There is a new look to the festival's final furlong, with the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle closing the four-day extravaganza for the first time.
Some questioned whether the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual, as a frantically run big-field two-mile handicap chase, was a suitable way to end the meeting after its 2018 grisly renewal claimed the lives of three horses.
However, while the Grand Annual was examined closely in the BHA's safety review of last year's festival, and its maximum field size reduced from 24 to 20, the decision to bring it forward in the programme was taken for unconnected reasons, and in part to give professional jockeys an earlier sign-off to their day.
What could look familiar is how both races finish. Le Prezien bids for back-to-back strikes in the Grand Annual, but Nicholls has an even likelier winner in Magic Saint, whose odds have seemed to get shorter by the day. Gordon Elliott will then try to take the Martin Pipe for the third consecutive year, this time with Dallas Des Pictons.
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