The 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup looks wide open with five horses vying for favouritism. To complicate matters further, three of them are trained by Willie Mullins who is chasing his first victory in chasing’s blue riband event.
Djakadam spearheads Mullins Gold Cup challenge.
Mullins looks set to resist the temptation to allocate different targets for his Gold Cup runners and his challenge will be led by last year’s runner-up Djakadam.
The seven-year-old moved well into the home straight last year but could not pass the determined Coneygree, eventually failing by a length and a half. With that rival absent through injury, Djakadam was promoted to Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite after winning impressively at Punchestown in December. His 12 lengths victory over Valseur Lido looks even better in light of the runner-up’s unlucky last fence exit in the Irish Gold Cup last month.
Djakadam was expected to confirm his status as market leader in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in January but crashed out at the tenth fence. Mullins does not feel that the setback has damaged his preparation significantly and he remains a leading contender.
Valseur Lido has been neglected in the market in recent days and has drifted out to 20-1. Mullins believes that the Gold Cup trip will suit him much better than the extended two and a half miles of the Ryanair Chase. He is as short as 5-1 for the latter and the final decision rests with the owners, Gigginstown House Stud.
Cue Card and Vautour set to renew rivalry.
The King George VI Chase on Boxing Day provided a thrilling spectacle as Cue Card battled to a head victory over Vautour. The two are set to clash again in the Gold Cup along with the beaten favourite Don Cossack who crashed out at the second last.
Cue Card has been a magnificent servant to the Colin Tizzard stable and has already won a Champion Bumper and a Ryanair Chase at the festival. He dispelled doubts about his ability to stay three miles when winning the Betfair Chase at Haydock in 2013. He won the race for a second time in November before his epic battle with Vautour.
Connections of the runner-up were thrilled with their horse who was kicked for home early in the home straight. That was his first attempt at three miles and there remain question marks about his stamina for the extra quarter of a mile at Cheltenham. He was a brilliant winner of the JLT Novices’ Chase at last year’s festival over two and a half miles.
Don Cossack appeared to be staying on when he fell at Kempton and he bounced back with a bloodless victory at Thurles in January. Gordon Elliott’s nine-year-old thrashed Cue Card at Aintree last year on good ground and connections will be hoping that the ground does not become too soft.
Bryan Cooper expected to side with Don Poli
Jockey Bryan Cooper has to choose between the four Gigginstown entries; Don Poli, Don Cossack, Road To Riches and Valseur Lido. It will be a surprise if he deserts Don Poli who has won both of his races this season. Yet another representative of the Mullins stable, he burst into the Gold Cup picture when winning the RSA Chase impressively last year.
Road To Riches also holds an entry in the Ryanair and he really wants good ground to be at his best. Noel Meade felt that the testing conditions were responsible for his defeat by Carlingford Lough in the Irish Gold Cup. The winner was almost pulled up with four to jump at Leopardstown but the leaders folded up in the home straight. His main objective is thought to be the Grand National but he could take his chance if the going is suitably testing.
Cue Card is not completely alone in attempting to keep the Gold Cup on home soil. Alan King’s Smad Place won the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in November before finishing fourth in the King George. The popular grey earned his place in the field when profiting from the fall of Djakadam in January.
Grand National winner Many Clouds is also in the line-up after his intended prep race at Kelso was abandoned. He finished sixth last year and a similar performance on Friday would set him up perfectly for another tilt at the Aintree showpiece.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup is due off at 3.30 on Friday 18th March and will be screened live on Channel 4.
By Harvey Mayson
By Harvey Mayson