The Cheltenham Festival culminates in the Gold Cup itself on Friday (15:30) and, in a wide-open renewal, Presenting Percy remains well-fancied to take the blue riband event of steeplechasing back to Ireland.
This Pat Kelly trained eight-year-old has had a less than conventional preparation for a tilt at glory.
While that is cause for concern in some quarters, it’s well worth immediately pointing out that Presenting Percy had a spin over hurdles en route to Cheltenham last year.
He then got tapped for toe over 2m 4f when returning to fences at Gowran Park, but scored by seven lengths in very taking style to land the RSA Chase. That is the last time anyone saw Presenting Percy jump a fence in anger.
However, he has since been schooled at Galway with staff at the Irish racecourse reconfiguring the right-handed track so he could tackle the obstacles the same way round as Cheltenham.
Presenting Percy has also defended his Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle crown over 3m this season. Bookmakers certainly believe in clever handler Kelly’s preparations as his stable star is 9/2 with Bethard for the Gold Cup.
If there is one chink, then it’s surely the possibility of drying ground despite light showers forecast.
Connections have swerved racing Presenting Percy even on a yielding surface this season, but it’s worth remembering he won the ultra-competitive Pertemps Network Final here two years ago on good going.
He clearly acts in those sort of conditions then, and a bold bid for a Cheltenham Festival hat-trick looks assured.
History against Native River
Last year’s Gold Cup hero Native River is back to defend his title. The Colin Tizzard trained nine-year-old was brave and magnificent on tacky ground 12 months ago, outstaying Might Bite up the Cheltenham hill in one of modern sport’s epic duels.
Winning this illustrious prize is one thing, but defending it is quite another. Native River doesn’t have history on his side, but has ran very well when placing in the other stayers’ chase Triple Crown events this season.
He kept on best behind Haydock specialist Bristol De Mai in the Betfair Chase and was then far from disgraced when third in the King George VI Chase.
That Boxing Day feature at Kempton is run on a tight, right-handed track. Cheltenham is a different venue altogether, and the return to its undulations and an emphasis on galloping are pluses.
Native River may need more further forecast rain than expected in order to get his optimum conditions again, however.
He will not be found wanting in the stamina department though. Gold Cup winners have to stay and Native River has proven that time and again, finishing second over 4m here three years ago before a subsequent victory in the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow the following season.
At 9/2 with 888Sport, Native River has a chance of emulating Best Mate, Arkle and other legendary horses that have won this race back-to-back.
As four nine-year-olds have won in the last 10 years, he certainly cannot be discounted and is very much in the equation.
Clan Des Obeaux has stamina to prove
Also prominent in the Cheltenham Gold Cup betting is the improving King George winner Clan Des Obeaux. Paul Nicholls’ charge has taken his form to a new level this season, progressing past many of the established staying chasers to score at Kempton.
Victory on Boxing Day underlines the serious upward curve Clan Des Obeaux is on and he had no problem following-up in the rearranged Grade 2 Denman Chase at Ascot.
Unlike Presenting Percy and Native River though, the seven-year-old needs to demonstrate he stays beyond three miles.
The Gold Cup is an extended 3m 2f and Clan Des Obeaux is zero from four starts at Cheltenham. That doesn’t quite tell the whole story, however, as he was runner-up to Guitar Pete giving a ton of weight away in the 2017 Caspian Caviar Gold Cup.
Although detractors highlight Starchitect broke down when leading that race, Clan Des Obeaux put in a massive run to take second and go down by 2 3/4 lengths.
It was a taking display off top weight and the progress he has made since suggests he’s more than capable of running a big race.
Nicholls’ stable entered the Festival in fine form and Clan Des Obeaux is the joint top rated in this year’s Gold Cup, alongside Native River and Bristol De Mai.
This is further than he’s ever raced before, but given the great strides already made it’d be no surprise to see him land the hat-trick at 9/2 with betway.
Mullins saddles four in bid to end hoodoo
Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins has never won the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He’s giving it his best shot again this year though, courtesy of a four-pronged attack.
Al Boum Photo has had an eventful chasing career to date and steps back up in trip. There’s never a dull moment for followers of this seven-year-old who fell when looking held in third in the RSA 12 months ago.
He was no worse for the tumble, however, as he bested JLT heroine Shattered Love in a Grade 1 at Fairyhouse’s Easter Festival next time up.
Paul Townend then bizarrely bypassed the final fence on him when leading and set to win at the Punchestown Festival back up at 3m.
A Listed victory at Tramore on his only start this season looks smart form, but the trip was only 2m 5f and the track was so tight horses went round three circuits.
Al Boum Photo did beat some useful stayers though, including stable companion Invitation Only who has since won the valuable Grade A Thyestes Chase at Gowran. That one is the outsider of the quartet engaged by Mullins, according to the Cheltenham Gold Cup betting.
Kemboy landed the Grade 1 Savills Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas in taking style, so is the most-fancied from his stable at 11/1 with Ladbrokes.
He’s won each of his last four well on varied going, so should cope with whatever underfoot conditions this race is on. That leaves Bellshill, who has won the Punchestown and Irish Gold Cups inside the last 12 months.
The nine-year-old also stays further having been beaten just a length in the Irish Grand National last Easter and could be the best each-way value at 12/1 with William Hill.
Might Bite and Thistlecrack may be too old
Last year’s runner-up Might Bite has flopped on both his starts this season and it’s been two decades since a 10-year-old triumphed in the Gold Cup.
Nicky Henderson has brought horses that have had problems back before, but this is a huge task against some smart looking youngsters.
It’s just great to see Thistlecrack make it to Cheltenham after he missed the last two years. Now an 11-year-old, Colin Tizzards charge was ante post favourite for the Gold Cup in both those previous campaigns before suffering setbacks.
Thistlecrack was a spirited runner-up in his bid to regain the King George over Christmas. Like the winner Clan Des Obeaux, he came on for his reappearance.
A bit like Faugheen in the Stayers; Hurdle though, there is the danger of sentiment creeping in to betting on him. You have to go back 50 years to find a horse older than 10 that has won the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
It’s a major ask for Thistlecrack and, for all he’d be a popular winner at 16/1 with Betfred, even backing him each-way comes with risk. He’s never won beyond 3m.
Northern raider Definitly Red was sixth last year, but now aged 10 has it all to do if he’s to improve on that position.
Although disappointing when losing a match around Kelso last time out, he did nothing wrong in winning his first two starts of the season in Grade 2 company at Wetherby and Aintree.
As with the other elder statesmen, it’s hard to see there being any further improvement in Definitly Red. He’s too much to find on last year’s form with the first three home who all re-oppose. Focusing on younger sorts looks wise based on recent Gold Cup stats.
Soft suits Anibale Fly
Anibale Fly was a fine third in this 12 months ago and then fourth in the Grand National at Aintree. That is staying chase form right out of the top drawer and shrewd handler Tony Martin has brought the JP McManus owned nine-year-old along nicely for another crack at this.
Although Aniable Fly hasn’t won either of his starts this season, both races have been over inadequate trips. He is thorough stayer and now back up in trip can again go well at a big 25/1 price with Ladbrokes, so long as the forecast rain comes. A soft surface is right up his street.
Such conditions also suit the aforementioned Bristol De Mai, but Nigel Twiston-Davies’ horse just isn’t the same animal away from happy hunting ground Haydock.
He fell in the King George and brought down Waiting Patiently in the process. Both Bristol De Mai and Anibale Fly are trading around the same price, so the clear preference at those odds is for the latter.
Cotswold Chase second Elegant Escape, meanwhile, should be suited by the extra furlong of this as he won the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow over Christmas.
Although available at bigger odds than Tizzard’s other two runners, the seven-year-old has a progressive profile that is similar to that of Native River where he was the same age.
There is definitely more to come from Elegant Escape and that is reflected in odds of 20/1 with BetVictor for the Gold Cup.
Shattered Love has been unlucky when getting hampered on recent starts, but does benefit from a 7lb sex allowance.
Of the remainder, she looks the only one open to further progress with Double Shuffle and Yala Enki big betting outsiders here.