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Cue Card's moment of destiny as he bids to join immortals

Tom Kerr sets the scene for jump racing's most prestigious prize

Cue Card: would solidify his place in the pantheon of all-time greats if he wins the Gold Cup
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On Friday thousands of punters will stream into Cheltenham through the track's Hall of Fame, where a large display celebrates the Gold Cup champions of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Some names will be unfamiliar to all but the most committed racing historians, but should racegoers pause to let the eyes and mind wander through the decades then immortals will shine out like jewels on a crown.

There is Golden Miller, the 'steeplechaser of the century', who won five consecutive Gold Cups in the 1930s and was owned by the brilliantly eccentric Dorothy Paget, whose average bet was the modern-day equivalent of £600,000.

Being a spectacularly late riser, Paget's bets would often be placed after races had been run (bookies, knowing she was an honourable sort, still accepted them).

There is Cottage Rake, who won three consecutive Gold Cups beginning in 1948 and brought to the attention of British racegoers one Vincent O'Brien, who went on to win 23 festival races at a time there were a damn sight fewer of them to win.

There is, of course, the greatest Gold Cup winner of them all, Arkle, a Guinness-drinking behemoth whose towering brilliance has overshadowed every winner of the race before or since, a demi-god who still sets the standard by which all winners of this most famous race are measured.

There is Desert Orchid, the dazzling grey who "hated every step of the way" on rain and snow-soaked turf, according to his jockey Simon Sherwood, yet still won in a triumph of will over weather in a race later judged by Racing Post readers to be the greatest horse race of all time.

And there are the modern greats: Best Mate, who won three consecutive Cups just after the turn of the new millennium; Denman, The Tank, who pulverised the opposition with a breathtaking hard-galloping performance in 2008; and Kauto Star, the first horse to regain the Gold Cup in its history and the most brilliant chaser since Arkle.

All names that don't just echo but roar down the ages. They are horses who survive forever in the collective memory of the Cheltenham faithful as barometers of brilliance and heroes of yesteryear.

No race creates public champions like the Gold Cup. It is the most prestigious and highly coveted prize the sport has, a race that has been won by the classiest of racehorses and yet one that ruthlessly punishes fragility or softness. Only the toughest need apply for this.

Who will join the sport's most glorious roll of honour on Friday? If emotion had its day, it would be the mighty Cue Card, already the most famous and beloved chaser in training yet a horse who needs a crowning victory to secure a place among the greats rather than just the good.

Last year Cue Card fell at the third-last fence when travelling hard on the bridle. His rider, Paddy Brennan, has described the fall as the worst moment of his life. "I wanted to die," he told an interviewer recently. This may be the last, best chance for Cue Card and Brennan to make amends.

If he is to do so, he must win a race shorn of countless stars – Don Cossack, Coneygree, Vautour and Thistlecrack among those absent – yet one still replete with quality.

Djakadam, second in the race for the last two runnings, has had a smoother preparation than last year and is reported to be flying at home, his well-being burnishing trainer Willie Mullins' dream of a first Gold Cup after six seconds.

Djakadam is in a three-way heat for favouritism with Native River, a stablemate of Cue Card at Colin Tizzard's Dorset yard (at just before midday on Thursday every major firm bar one had all three inseparable at 7-2).

The youngest and least experienced of the trio, Native River has earned comparisons with Denman for his punishing galloping style in victories in the Hennessy and Welsh National.

Native River jumps clear of his rivals at Newbury
It is no three-runner race, however, with strength in depth aplenty. A strong Irish challenge is bolstered by Lexus Chase winner Outlander and Irish Gold Cup victor Sizing John, while the home defence includes 2014 World Hurdle hero More Of That and Minella Rocco, who beat Native River here in last year's National Hunt Chase but has failed to complete his last two races.

And a triumph for rank outsider Tea For Two would be notable for more reasons than just the shockwaves it would send through the packed grandstand. With Lizzie Kelly in the saddle he would be the first Gold Cup winner to be ridden by a woman (win or lose, she will be the first female jockey in the race for 33 years).

The Timico-backed Gold Cup may be the final day's highlight, but it is away from the feature that bookmakers could take their most severe battering of the week. Defi Du Seuil, unbeaten in five runs over hurdles, will open the day as a warm order for the JCB Triumph Hurdle.

Death Duty, also unbeaten this season and from the on-fire yard of Gordon Elliott, will be many judges' idea of the Albert Bartlett winner. And in the St James's Place Foxhunter, which follows the Gold Cup, the wonderful On The Fringe bids for a third consecutive success in the race under the estimable amateur Jamie Codd, enjoying the festival of a lifetime with two wins already.

It is some line-up to close the show.

Last year Cue Card fell at the third-last fence. His rider, Paddy Brennan, has described the fall as the worst moment of his life
E.W. Terms
Sky bet