Denman can dig deep to take place in history books
Were we scribes a year early in building up the Cheltenham Gold Cup as the greatest contest of the modern jumping era?
Last year, it did not develop into the great head-to-head between Kauto Star and Denman, as both were totally upstaged by Imperial Commander.
In fact, once the tapes sprang back, it became obvious that Kauto Star, the 8/11 favourite, was never happy with himself. A bad blunder in the first half of the race destroyed his confidence and he and Ruby Walsh were struggling from that point. The only consolation was that the dual-winner took no harm from a heavy fall four out.
The reason I ask whether this could be an even better renewal than last year is that all the principals are back, plus there is a rising star in Long Run, the Nicky Henderson-trained King George winner, which has been intensively schooled for this big assignment.
Trainer Paul Nicholls and his staff at Ditcheat are worthy of praise in having their two star chasers saddling up for yet another Festival.
It is also testimony to the toughness of both Kauto Star and Denman, and it is interesting that they have been lightly raced leading up to their target.
Denman has not been seen racing in public since he turned in a gallant third to Diamond Harry and Burton Port in Newbury's Hennessy Gold Cup last November.
Nicholls revised his training schedule after noting that the gelding can never be underdone going into a race, even one seen as a 'prep' for his principal target. This change of tack could be very significant, as could the breathing operation that he underwent shortly after that outing.
Kauto Star disappointed with his third to Long Run and Riverside Theatre in the King George and Nicholls has faced one of his biggest challenges as a trainer to restore confidence and get the gelding to racing pitch for this.
Then, of course, there is the defending champion Imperial Commander, whose one appearance this season resulted in a tidy win at Haydock Park in November. These stars will be fresher than ever going into this year's Gold Cup, and more than ever it is going to hinge on the way the race is run.
I have always been a Denman fan. He has been responsible for some incredibly gutsy performances over the past few years. Much depends on ground conditions, but provided there is sufficient give, I feel he will land the second Gold Cup of his career. Another success would make him one of the greatest Gold Cup winners in history.
Many casual punters will be looking for a lively outsider, and Midnight Chase might be the answer. The nine-year-old has won his last four outings, with three of them coming at Cheltenham.
He is a rapid improver and it would be no surprise if he managed to sneak a place.
Tom Scudamore has picked up the ride on Midnight Chase following the unfortunate injury to Dougie Costello, who broke his ankle at Stratford on Monday.
The gelding is trained by Neil Mulholland.
Irish hopes rest principally with Pandorama, which suffered a setback in preparation but is now reportedly back in form. He won at Leopardstown in heavy ground in December and is a very talented jumper at his best.
Alex Ferguson will be represented by What A Friend, the mount of Daryl Jacob.
What A Friend was narrowly beaten by stablemate Noland at Newbury last month and is a difficult ride. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
1.30: A Media Luz
2.05: Snap Tie
2.40: Bobs Worth (nap)
4.0: Baby Run
4.40: Prince Du Seuil