THE absence of so many big names from the Cheltenham Festival seems to have preoccupied many pundits and punters. For this pundit (and punter) I couldn’t care less that horses who we never see during the season will be missing (a la Annie Power and Faugheen). The Champion Hurdle, as a result, is a wide open affair and a great betting heat, a welcome antidote to having a short-priced favourite who strolls to victory. But I am gutted that injury and tragedy has robbed the Cheltenham Gold Cup of some of its finest talent. No Vautour, no Don Cossack and no Coneygree and, most devastating of all, no Thistlecrack. That was confirmed yesterday when a second scan confirmed a fairly minor tendon injury.
Colin Tizzard still saddles the first two in the market in Cue Card and Native River. It seems incomprehensible that he won’t train the winner. I’m going for CUE CARD and I’ll explain why later.
But Native River and Richard Johnson will prove a formidable rival. It seems inconceivable that a horse who was beaten in the 4m National Hunt Chase can go on and win the Cheltenham Gold Cup a year later. But this likeable seven year old has improved markedly this season with powerful performances to win the Hennessy Gold Cup and Welsh National. He showed a bit of class to win the Denman Chase last time which only enhanced his reputation.
Willie Mullins has been bullish about the chance of Djakadam and those who took big each-way prices early in the season will be sitting pretty. He looks certain to run another big race although 5/1 looks too skinny now. He would have been beaten by Cue Card last year if the latter had stood up and as long as Cue Card doesn’t catastrophically misjudge any obstacles, I see no reason why Djakadam will finish in front of him this time.
Outlander is improving and unexposed, and finished in front of Djakadam in the Lexus Chase although he has not covered himself in glory on his previous two visits to Prestbury Park. Another strong Irish raider is Sizing John who has scrambled his way out of Douvan’s pocket to emerge as a live candidate. He won the Irish Gold Cup on his first stab at a longer trip and 10/1 is not ungenerous.
Each-way backers could do worse than look at Bristol De Mai at 25/1 although he is slightly infuriating and you never know what you’re going to get with him. If he reproduced his Haydock form he would be a player.
Other big-priced contenders who could pinch a place at a massive price include More Of That (20/1), who was running his best race for some time when falling in Ireland last time and the old boy Smad Place (50/1) who would be on my each-way radar if it comes up very soft.
But all roads lead back to Cue Card. He would be a vastly popular winner following last year’s heartbreaking exit but I don’t go for sentiment when betting on the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He is, quite simply, the best horse in the race. His victory in the Betfair Chase and last time at Ascot showed he was as well as ever and the fact his second to Thistlecrack in the King George was deemed disappointing only goes to show the high standards that the horse has set in recent years. Paddy Brennan gets a wonderful tune out of Cue Card and I expect their partnership to come bounding up the hill ahead of Native River, who will probably chase him home. Those who took big prices about Cue Card after the King George will be smugly rubbing their hands. But the 7/2 still available is not unreasonable value. There is no doubt that Cue Card would be a worthy Cheltenham Gold Cup winner.