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The contenders and hot views as Native River bids to defend Gold Cup crown

Native River: raised the roof last year and bids for a second Gold Cup win on Friday
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3.30 Cheltenham
Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase (Grade 1) | 3m2f70y 5yo+| ITV/RTV

Native Riverback at the track he loves

Dual winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup are a rarity at best but if ever a horse is tailor-made for the job, last year’s winner Native River is the horse.

An archetypal staying chaser, he laid everything on the line to emerge as champion 12 months ago and, despite digging to the bottom of his reserves to land the biggest prize in jump racing, has returned this season with his verveintact.

But for all his efforts to finish second in the Betfair Chase and third in the King George have advertised his wellbeing, it is Cheltenham’s unique test and stamina-sapping climb to the post that accentuate his dogged brilliance.

“I’ve seen him out this morning and he looks beautiful,” said trainer Colin Tizzard on Thursday. “The rain has come and we couldn’t have wished for a better preparation. It's now down to the horse to do the talking.

“He’s run in two Gold Cups, has won one, and loves everything about that track– he ticks all the boxes.”

Anyone would dream about saddling a live contender in the Gold Cup, so Tizzard must be the envy of his fellow trainers with two further challengers boasting genuine claims.

Thistlecrack, favourite for the race before injury struck two years ago, finally makes the line-up and, after finishing second in the King George, comes in with a clean bill of health.

“The prep's gone really well and he’s come right in his coat,” added Tizzard. “The three and a quarter miles in a Gold Cup is a test and he’s 11– those are the negatives– but he beat Native River in the King George and has form that's almost as good as anybody’s.I couldn’t be happier with him.”

Last but by no means least, Welsh Grand National winner Elegant Escape completes Tizzard’s trio and certainly has the right profile to make a splash.

This week’s rain will play to the seven-year-old's strengths and the resolute stayer was the one catching the eye when closing on Frodon in the Cotswold Chaselast time.

Tizzard said: “He’s at the age where he could be the improver. He probably has to improve 10lb but it’s not beyond the realms.

"He’s a had a lovely preparation, is race-fit and he’s hard. He deserves to take his chance.”

Native River prosProven Gold Cup horse with requisite stamina and attitude

Native River consBeaten by challengers he faces herein two runs this season andthere areplenty of newrivals too

Clan Des Obeaux goes for gold after 'perfect' prep

It has been almost the perfect season for Clan Des Obeaux, who has announced himself as the new kid on the staying chase block and bids to give trainer Paul Nicholls a fifth Gold Cup.

A good horse last season, he has grown into a champion this term, and after blowing the cobwebs away at Haydock in November he was a fabulous King George victor.

His prep at Ascot last month was again a demonstration of a thoroughbred at the top of his game and Nicholls is confident his horse has the required arsenal to lift gold.

“He’s had a perfect season,” agreed Nicholls. “He’s progressed with each run and the preparation's been great. He’s got to get that extra couple of furlongs but I’m not too worried about that.

"I wouldn’t mind it being dryish overnight and on Friday – not because he doesn’t go on soft, he just wouldn’t want a bog over three and a quarter miles. Good to soft would be perfect.”

Clan Des Obeaux has been runner-up on three of his four starts at Cheltenham and Nicholls dismissed any question marks about the track.

“Forget that,” said the trainer. “He’s had experience at the track and he’s twice the horse now. It’s not an issue at all and what he’s done previously at Cheltenham will stand him in good stead.”

ProsImproving rapidly and has had dream preparation, including victory in the King George

ConsBoth times he raced beyond three miles he was beaten and his stamina for the final climbis unproven

Presenting Percy out to defy unorthodox build-up

Only Easter Hero in 1929 has won the Gold Cup without a run over fences the same season– that is the task facing Presenting Percy as he attempts to emulate that feat.

Twice a winner at the festival, the Pat Kelly-trained eight-year-old romped to a seven-length win in the RSA Chase a year ago but has run only once in the interim, landing the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park in January.

He missed potential prep racesover fences due to fears about unsuitably quick ground but Kelly, who has schooled his stable star over fences at Galway, is unconcerned about the lack of a chase run for his first Gold Cup runner.

Hesaid: "Presenting Percy travelled over on Tuesday and has settled in well. We're happy with him and the fact he hasn't had a run over fences isn't a worry. Neither is the ground or distance– we're looking forward to it."

Davy Russell, who won the Pertemps Final on Presenting Percy in 2017 and the RSA a year ago, will be bidding for a second win in the race afterLord Windermere in 2014.

Since Arkle won the first of his three Gold Cup wins in 1964, seven RSA winners have won the Gold Cup the year afterlandingthe big novice event.

ProsImpressive winner of the RSA Chase last year and trip and ground will suit

ConsHe hasn't run over fences for 12 months, and that has to be a concern

Mullins runs four in search of first Gold Cup win

Willie Mullins, who hassaddled the runner-upsix times in the Gold Cup, is four-handed in his quest to end a frustrating search for a first winner.

Bellshill, winner of the Punchestown Gold Cup last season and the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month, heads his team, which also includes Kemboy, who has been restedwiththe big race in mind after landing the Grade 1 Savills Chase by seven lengths at Leopardstown in December.

Ruby Walsh, twice a Gold Cup winner on Kauto Star, rides Bellshill and said: "I'm happy to be riding him. He's improved a good bit since he beat Road To Respect in the Irish Gold Cup and I think he has a great chance. But in making the choice I didn't discount Willie's other ones lightly."

Al Boum Photo, successful at Tramore in January on his only start this season, and Invitation Only, winner of the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park in January, complete the Mullins quartet.

Bellshill pros Has developed into a genuine Grade 1 performer, winning the Punchestown Gold Cup and Irish Gold Cup. Sound jumper who stays and goes on the ground

Bellshill cons Hasn't shone on two of three past visits to the festival

Kemboy pros Much improved this season and an impressive winner at Grade 1 level at Leopardstown on his most recent start

Kemboy cons More required here with stamina to prove

Mullins’ Gold Cup record

2018 Djakadam (fifth), Killultagh Vic (PU), Bachasson (F), Total Recall (F)
2017 Djakadam (fourth)
2016 Djakadam (second), On His Own (eighth)
2015 Djakadam (second), On His Own (fifth), Boston Bob (11th)
2014 On His Own (second)
2013 Sir Des Champs (second)
2012 The Midnight Club (ninth)
2011 Kempes (PU)
2010 Cooldine (fifth)
2006 Hedgehunter (second)
2004 Alexander Banquet (eighth)
2002 Alexander Banquet (sixth), Florida Pearl (11th)
2000 Florida Pearl (second)
1999 Florida Pearl (third)

Might Bite has his swagger back

Things have not exactly gone to plan this season for Might Bite, but if he can rediscover the form that carried him to an honourable second in this race 12 months ago he is no forlorn hope.

Favourite when runner-up to Native River last year, he has been beaten a combined total of 66 lengths in two starts this season, looking a shell of the horse that won at Aintree and Kempton last season.

However, trainer Nicky Henderson has been quietly making happier noises about Might Bite in recent weeks and, while he comes with a health risk for punters, his trainer has 'previous' when it comes to great comebacks.

“Might Bite was disappointing in the King George but we've recauterised his palate and just had to start again with him really as the first half of the season didn't go very well,” said Henderson.

“He appears in good form and he went to Newbury the other day [for a racecourse gallop and school] and he pleased us. He's fit, fresh and well.”

Elliott looking for 'big run' fromShattered Love

Shattered Love was one of the most impressive winners at last year's festival in the JLT Novices' Chase, and although beaten in five runs subsequently she's had a wind operation since her last run and enjoys soft ground.

"She’s very well and I was pleased to see the rain fall at the start of the week as the ground has been too quick for her for much of the season," said trainer Gordon Elliott.

"She’s been freshened up and has also had a wind procedure since she last ran, which should help. This is the Gold Cup and I’m under no illusions as to the task but I think she’s in good shape, and she's a course winner.

"I’ve always thought of her as a mare that could run very well in a Gold Cup and hopefully she can prove me right."

Anibale ready to take flight

Third in the race a year ago, Anibale Fly will be attempting to give owner JP McManus a second win in the race seven years on from Synchronised.

The Tony Martin-trained nine-year-old, who finished fourth in last year's Grand National, has raced only twice this season because of dry ground in Ireland. He finished second in the Grade 2 Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park last month.

McManus's racing manager Frank Berry said: "We were delighted with Anibale Fly's run at Gowran over a trip short of his best. He came out of the race well and Tony is very happy with him.

"Hopefully he'll run at least as well as he did in the race 12 months ago."

Barry Geraghty, successful on Kicking King in 2005 and Bobs Worth in 2013, is in the saddle.

Bristol as good as ever

UnderestimateBristol De Mai at your peril. That has been the message from Nigel Twiston-Davies all season and, true to form, he is not ruling out an upset.

Haydock, rather than Cheltenham, has been his happiest stamping ground, but he is a three-time winner at the highest level over fences and is a class act on his day.

"I’m really pleased with him and he hasn’t had a lame step all season," said the trainer. "He's as good as he's ever been and don’t forget he’s the joint top-rated horse in the race."

'I could see him winning'

Definitly Red is out to bridge a 26-year gap and become the first Gold Cup winner trained in the north since Jodami triumphed for Peter Beaumont in 1993.

A fan favourite, Definitly Red suffered a surprise 1-6 defeat in his prep run at Kelso but before that looked in rude health with wins at Wetherby at Aintree and looks a live outsider.

“I could see him winning the race,” said trainer Brian Ellison. “I think it’s open. We beat Bristol De Mai in the Cotswold Chase last year and we’re twice the price– it’s crazy.

“We probably looked after him too much at Kelso but, having said that, he’s come out of it great and I couldn’t be any happier with him. I don’t mind the rain, I just don’t want it to be tacky ground.”

Two at big prices

Double Shuffle and Yala Enki are rank outsiders but trainers Tom George and Venetia Williams are not entirely discounting hitting the frame.

“He's in as good a form as he’s ever been and the race at Kempton didn’t take a lot out of him because they didn’t go much of a gallop,” said George of Double Shuffle.

“As a young horse he loved Cheltenham and we thought we’d give it a go, as you don’t get many chances at this.”

Rain would only enhance the chances of Yala Enkiaccording to Williams, and the trainer said: “Clearly it’s a bit of a longshot but any more rain would be hugely appreciated. He stays very well and we live in hope he might sneak a place.

“The winner will need to be laden with stamina and we ran Mon Mome in the Gold Cup the year after he won the National and he finished third after the heavens opened.”

Spotlight verdict

An absorbing and well up-to-scratch renewal. Last year's winnerNative Riveris likely to press on from the front again as stamina is his chief asset but he will do well to fend them all off in a better-contested race this year. Preference is for his charismatic stablemateThistlecrack, who showed that the ability is still very much there when second to the up-and-coming but unproven stayerClan Des Obeauxin the King George last time, with this longer trip a plus if anything. Thistlecrack that day was having just his second race since an absence and he excelled over hurdles here in the past. Although 11 now, he is a 'young' 11 inasmuch as he didn't even make his hurdles debut until he was a 7yo. Willie Mullins' pair of last-time-out Grade 1 winnersKemboyandBellshillcan (in that order) fill the places ahead of another rising star inPresenting Percy.

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He’s run in two Gold Cups before, has won one and loves everything about that track - he ticks all the boxes
E.W. Terms
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