Ante-post focus: 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup

AT THE start of the National Hunt season, purists and pundits were licking their lips at the prospect of a so-called “golden generation” of young chasers coming to the fore. The thought of these upwardly mobile, scopey creatures making it to the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup line-up gave goosebumps to those of us drenched in jump racing sentiment and lit the blue touch paper for a host of hyperbole. However, more than halfway through the season, is the so-called golden generation really up to scratch? There are still more questions than answers…

The Irish equine army that make up the bulk of the golden boys, Vautour, Don Cossack, Don Poli and Djakadam, may all still grace Prestbury Park in jump racing’s blue riband on March 18. But they have all shown they have chinks in their armour this season.

In the sad absence of last year’s winner Coneygree, the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup is there for the taking, so which one of the young guns will step up? Or is there a fly in the ointment, something else that can eclipse them all?

Vautour is currently the ante-post favourite, albeit uneasy at around 4/1. Beaten by Cue Card in the King George, he may run in the Denman Chase at Newbury or the Irish Gold Cup next Saturday and Willie Mullins should know where he stands after either of those races. Rich Ricci said last week that the Gold Cup is the preferred option but the Ryanair Chase is a tempting alternative for this Rolls Royce of a chaser.  I hope he goes for the Gold Cup as the race will otherwise lose some of its lustre.

Djakadam has been deposed as favourite after his fall at Cheltenham on Saturday. Would he have beaten the trailblazing Smad Place? Whatever the outcome may have been, hopefully this was a blip and a crucial part of the horse’s continuing education.

Don Poli has been unimpressive in his two victories this season but that’s him, he does just enough. He is tough but he can do no more than win. Bear in mind, he tends to come alive at the Festival and, apart from Vautour, the way he came up the hill to win the RSA Chase last year was the highlight for me in 2015.

Don Cossack fluffed his lines in the King George when in contention in what has otherwise been a peerless campaign. The tendency to clout the odd fence, which was his undoing in last year’s Ryanair, may find him out again but with a clear round he would be the preference to the other three mentioned.

What of the others? Smad Place was brilliant in the Hennessy and again in the Betbright Chase on Saturday. He is a different horse this season and Alan King has confirmed that he will be aimed at the Gold Cup. That was a no-brainer, really. He is best priced 12/1 after plenty of recent support and that won’t last long.

This Saturday’s Irish Gold Cup should be informative with Road To Riches likely to take on Don Poli, and possibly Vautour as mentioned above. And that leaves Cue Card… What a season this horse and his trainer Colin Tizzard are having. But, for me, the thing that has left the most indelible impression has been the rapport between the horse and Paddy Brennan. The jockey clearly adores his steed and appears to get the very best out of him. I’ve always thought Cue Card’s best would be good enough to win a Gold Cup one day and I’ve seen nothing to change my mind….

So the golden generation may have to wait another year. Those Cheltenham Festival old boys Cue Card and Smad Place may show them the way in 2016.

2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup ante-post advice: January 31, 2016
Smad Place each-way at 12/1
Cue Card to win 7/1

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