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Silviniaco Conti (centre) leads over the last from eventual winner Lord Windermere (left) and Bobs Worth in last year’s Gold Cup – Paul Nicholls’ charge is favourite to gain his revenge in today’s renewal

Silviniaco Conti (centre) leads over the last from eventual winner Lord Windermere (left) and Bobs Worth in last year’s Gold Cup – Paul Nicholls’ charge is favourite to gain his revenge in today’s renewal

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Silviniaco Conti (centre) leads over the last from eventual winner Lord Windermere (left) and Bobs Worth in last year’s Gold Cup – Paul Nicholls’ charge is favourite to gain his revenge in today’s renewal

A year after Davy Russell's inspired Gold Cup-winning ride on Lord Windermere, Jim Culloty's reigning champion faces a massive challenge in his bid to retain the title.

The 2015 edition of the climactic Cheltenham Festival event comprises an 18-strong field - and it is strong. Sure, a critical eye might suggest that the £550,000 Betfred-sponsored contest is a wide-open affair that maybe lacks a marquee name, but this promises to be an enthralling spectacle.

If the rain that was forecast to fall overnight and into the morning materialises, the already gruelling three-and-a-quarter-mile test will become an even more rigorous examination. Soft ground would help some more than others, particularly Coneygree, which will strive to improve on an abominable record in the famous race for novices.

Of the 20 that have tackled the Gold Cup since Captain Christy triumphed for Pat Taaffe and Bobbie Beasly in 1974, 13 have failed to complete the course, with Dorans Pride's 1997 third the best outcome. It often ends in tears, which is why there are three races confined to novices.

SPECTACULAR

At this level, everything happens that split second faster, so there is no margin for error. Russell's daring last-to-first turn in 2014 was a spectacular example of a partnership getting everything just right, with Culloty's ability to produce his horse at the top of his game here in March similarly crucial.

The second, third, fourth and fifth in that dramatic finish are all back again, and Patrick Mullins vies to emulate the 2011 winning rider Sam Waley-Cohen by landing a blow for the amateur ranks aboard On His Own. His father's 2014 runner-up is joined by stablemates Boston Bob and Djakadam, while the potent raiding contingent also includes Road To Riches and Carlingford Lough.

Noel Meade and John Kiely have done wonders getting their respective Galway Plate winners to the point where they are considered genuine contenders at this exalted level. It would be some achievement if either were to cap it all by scaling the sport's highest summit now.

Aboard Carlingford Lough is the soon-to-be retired AP McCoy. The old Cotswold amphitheatre will shake to its foundations if the great man pulls off one last Gold Cup coup.

His final ride at the meeting that he has graced so heroically over the past 20 years is Meade's Ned Buntline in the Grand Annual, which has been named in his honour. Second last year, JP McManus' charge has been trained specifically for this since. Now it's time to deliver.

1.30 Grade One JCB Triumph Hurdle 2m1f

Dicosimo won in the manner of a future star at Gowran. The worry is that he smacks of a longterm prospect and they tend to struggle in this. Stablemates Kalkir and Petit Parisienne are more likely types, with Petit Parisienne prevailing when they clashed at Leopardstown. She is a smart filly.

Peace And Co sets the benchmark. Barry Geraghty will need to settle him, but the form of his two English wins is pretty solid.

Nicky Henderson's other runner Hargam is also a contender. He has improved with each start and his form has also stood up, while he is probably a more straightforward ride.

Beltor is already a better hurdler than he was a Flat horse. There is little to choose between him and Hargam in terms of what they have beaten, so he is a live player from the stable that produced the Champion Bumper runner-up.

Selection: Peace And Co is as reliable as juveniles come.

2.05 Grade Three Vincent O'Brien County Handicap Hurdle 2m 1f

Despite not running since finishing third in the Cesarewitch in October, Quick Jack will doubtless be popular for Tony Martin.

Successful at Galway in the summer, he was last seen over flights finishing third to Gilgamboa in the 2014 Boylesports Hurdle. His targets are being chosen carefully.

The Game Changer is another that hasn't been seen since October, when he was third to Rebel Fitz at Tipperary. This is his first start for Gordon Elliott, who has spoken highly of his chance. Willie Mullins saddles five, the pick of which is possibly the novice Max Dynamite.

McCoy has opted for Tom Mullins' Princely Conn. Just thwarted at Leopardstown on his return from a short break, he is another smart novice potentially well in, having finished third to Nichols Canyon in a Grade One.

The raiders have 13 in all and cases could be made for most. Cheltenian rarely runs a bad race but he has flopped here the past two years, while David Pipe's 2014 Imperial Cup victor Baltimore Rock is competitively handicapped.

Selection: Quick Jack will have a big say for Shane Shortall

2.40 Grade One Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle 3m

Black Hercules' form ties in closely with Douvan's on a line through Alpha Des Obeaux, which they both beat before coming here. That bodes well.

Fourth in the Champion Bumper last year, Black Hercules is a stayer with a touch of quality. He goes on any ground and the main concern would be that he hasn't run since December 7.

No More Heroes was just behind Windsor Park when fifth to Outlander at Leopardstown in January. He scoped wrong after, and had previously beaten the Supreme runner-up Shaneshill at Navan. As a point-to-point winner, this trip should be fine.

Martello Tower was second in the Leopardstown race, having beaten Outlander over this distance at Limerick previously. Probably best with plenty cut in the ground, he is a lively outsider.

Value At Risk was third to Shaneshill at Punchestown in April. He won readily on his hurdling bow but was then denied by Ordo Ab Chao over two-and-a-half here in January, when he looked as though he needed three miles.

Selection: If Black Hercules (nap) is fit he should win

3.20 Grade One Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase 3m 2f

Silviniaco Conti is the highest rated horse on 174, 7lb clear of Road To Riches. That reflects his overall supremacy.

He has been the outstanding staying chaser, winning two King George VI Chases, two Betfair Chases and an Aintree Bowl. A faller when travelling well in the 2013 Gold Cup, he jumped the last in front in 2014, only to waver up the hill. He did the same at Aintree, and Paul Nicholls' assertion that they identified ulcers as the cause of his problems has been borne out by the resolute way in which Silviniaco Conti has finished out his races this term.

Lord Windermere has been in reasonable form so far this season. The tactics in the Hennessy Gold Cup didn't suit, yet he still ran creditably in third. He must enter calculations.

Road To Riches has come into his own, progressing from a Galway Plate rout off 149 to destroy Rocky Creek at Down Royal before beating last year's runner-up On His Own in the Lexus. He will need to progress again but can, and the main negative is his lack of experience at this tricky track.

Carlingford Lough improved on his Lexus fifth to deny Foxrock in the Hennessy. He needs more now but may have reached the limit of potential, and he was well held in last year's RSA.

Many Clouds would be a big player if the rain comes. He has won the Hennessy and the old Pillar Chase, so he is a proper horse, but soft ground would enhance his chance considerably. The likes of Smad Place, Sam Winner, Boston Bob, On His Own, The Giant Bolster and Bobs Worth are hard to fancy for the win, notwithstanding that the latter trio in particular can turn it on around here.

Djakadam is an unknown quantity. He floundered when the pressure came on behind Many Clouds at Newbury, but pulverised the Thyestes opposition under a big weight off 145. That seemed to prove his stamina, but deep ground exaggerated the manner of victory.

He beat nothing, though he has the scope to continue his ascent. A faller here last year, he has the bare minimum of experience with just five starts over fences.

Coneygree is being pitched into the deep end. While his preference for making all won't make the job any easier, every drop of rain that falls will help him.

Holywell has come back to form in the nick of time. He loves it here, and, if he can replicate the display of his 10-length Aintree thrashing of Don Cossack, he could have a say.

Selection: Noel Fehily can get Silviniaco Conti (nb) home

4.00 St James's Place Foxhunter Chase Challenge Cup 3m 2f

Two-time hero Salsify is a fascinating contender. He returned from injury to show up well at Leopardstown, jumping with all his old zest before tiring.

Average improvement on that would put him right in the mix. On The Fringe was second to Prince De Beauchene in the Leopardstown race. He has been placed in this twice, but frequently looks as though he is simply outstayed.

The last time Muirhead ran here, he was fifth to Punjabi in the Champion Hurdle. Two from two in point-to-points this term, Derek O'Connor's chosen mount was placed in a Galway Plate - behind Carlingford Lough - and Kerry National in 2013, so he was a fair chaser at his best.

Paint The Clouds is unbeaten in six chases, four at this job. He won the big race at Stratford in May and will give his Gold Cup-winning rider a decent ride following his win at Doncaster.

Selection: Salsify can enhance his status as a Festival legend

4.40 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle 2m 4f

Willie Mullins' Roi Des Francs, Mckinley and Killultagh Vic are all fair novices. Killultagh Vic had Windsor Park behind when third to Outlander in January, which reads impressively.

Roi Des Francs is harder to gauge, but he is similarly precocious to Sir Des Champs and Don Poli, the stable's previous winners of this. Paul Nicholls' Le Mercurey is unexposed but has plenty weight, while Jolly's Cracked It is another useful novice. He was second to L'Ami Serge in a Grade One, so he has it within his range to go close. Edeymi is declared again.

Selection: Killultagh Vic is worth a venture at fancy odds

5.15 Grade Three AP McCoy Grand Annual Handicap Chase 2m 1f

Ned Buntline is 4lb higher than when second last year, his sole outing this term coming in a hurdle race at Christmas. He is likely to be thereabouts again.

Eastlake is another JP McManus runner with claims, though he is a little more exposed.

Ted Veale has been highly tried over fences. Third off 141 in the Boylesports Hurdle, he switches back to the bigger obstacles off 144, having finished second to Clarcam at Christmas.

Grumeti sports first-time blinkers. He is a fair novice but he will need to jump more fluently than he did at Sandown last time.

Blood Cotil is another novice. He was a good hurdler that could be well treated after getting off the mark over fences at the fifth attempt in Naas.

Selection: Ned Buntline will go very close if he is close to his best

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