Championship Play-Off Final: Michael Owen’s View
The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the feature race on the final day of the Cheltenham Festival and the reigning champion Native River will ensure there is no hiding place. The likelihood of soft or perhaps even heavy ground is the key to the chances of the Colin Tizzard-trained chaser who is bidding to become the first horse since Best Mate to win the Blue Riband of jumps racing back-to-back.
The great Willie Mullins has never saddled the winner of the big race and he has four representatives led by Irish Gold Cup winner Bellshill, but it is fellow Irish raider Presenting Percy (3.30) who gets the each way vote.
The selection has won at the last two Festivals but has not run over fences since running away with the RSA Chase at Cheltenham 12 months ago. Some have knocked that form with runner up Monalee a non-stayer over 3m and I would have liked Al Boum Photo to have stayed on his feet with the latter having fell at the last when staying on in third.
The selection (4/1 jt fav) looked in good fettle when scoring over hurdles on his belated reappearance last month. Note there has not been anything wrong with the gelding’s preparation, but the ground has just been too quick in Ireland for connections to let him run over the larger obstacles. Some will tell us that you can’t win a Gold Cup without having jumped a fence in public for 12 months, but he is trained by Patrick Kelly who, believe me, knows the price of fish!
The card starts with the Triumph Hurdle and you must ask yourself why did Joseph O’Brien’s juvenile Band Of Outlaws not run in this Grade 1 contest given the ease with which he won the Boodles – Fred Winter Handicap – earlier in the week?
Step forward stablemate Sir Erec (1.30) who is unbeaten in two starts over timber and was last seen on the flat running third to Stradivarius in the Long Distance Cup on Champions Day.
The selection is 11/10 but jumps, stays will enjoy the ground and we know the yard are in terrific form. An each way alternative is French import Pic D’Orhy who is held in high regard at the Paul Nicholls yard – 10/1 at BetVictor – and is fitted with a tongue tie for the first-time on his British debut.
In the County Hurdle Countister would have been the selection on better ground, but she failed to get home behind Laurina in the Mares’ Novices Hurdle on similar ground 12 months ago when she looked sure to finish second two out.
My two against the field are BetVictor’s 6/1 market leader Whisky Sour – third in this race 12 months ago – and Western Ryder (2.10) with the latter getting the each way nod for Warren Greatrex at 14/1 (five places). The selection has run a number of good races in defeat so far this season and talented conditional Harry Teal takes off a valuable 5lbs with regular pilot Richard Johnson claimed for the Hobbs-runner Crooks Peak who would prefer faster ground. Note the selection is blinkered for the first-time today.
Nicky Henderson’s unbeaten Birchdale is the mount of Barry Geraghty in the Albert Bartlett but I just favour his stablemate Dickie Diver (2.50) who is 8/1 and is another each way selection – 4 places. Aidan Coleman takes the ride on the inexperienced gelding who has a bit to find with Lisnagar Oscar on Chepstow running earlier in the season but can improve past Rebecca Curtis’s horse who may prefer better ground.
The Foxhunters’ is the Gold Cup for amateur riders. The ground has gone against Road To Rome but last year’s Ultima runner up Shantou Flyer will love the ground and has every chance. Hazel Hill has been my antepost selection for the race since his facile Warwick success but will het get home in the ground?
I have jumped ship and now feel Ucello Conti (4.10) will give the prolific combination of Jamie Codd and Gordon Elliot another winner. The selection has failed to complete the course in two Grand Nationals and has largely flattered to deceive throughout his career, but I feel he will have the race run to suit and can reward each way support – 4 places – at 5/1.
I’m not convinced Whatswrongwithyou has the experience for the Grand Annual and the each way vote goes to Marracudja (4.50) who has hinted at a return to form of late and has had a wind operation since finishing second – beaten a nose – in the Castleford Chase from a 4lbs lower mark over Christmas. That form has been franked by the winner – Cracking Find – and the selection might be a tad overpriced at 20/1 (5 places).
Dallas Des Pictons (5.30) was beaten just 3l by Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle winner City Island earlier in the season and I know there are many who believe the selection is a Graded winner in waiting. He is only 7/2 for the concluding Martin Pipe Hurdle but I would be disappointed if he didn’t run a very big race in the “Getting Out Stakes”. At a bigger price Mount Mews (28/1) reverts to timber and looks well treated for Donald McCain if returning to something like his best form.
1.30: Sir Erec 11/10
2.10: Western Ryder Each Way 14/1
2.50: Dickie Diver Each Way 8/1
3.30: Presenting Percy Each Way 4/1
4.10: Ucello Conti Each Way 5/1
4.50: Marracudja Each Way 20/1
5.30: Dallas Des Pictons 7/2