Irish pair pose main threat to Nicholls dynasty
The mammoth task of denying Britain's champion trainer Paul Nicholls a fourth successive Gold Cup this afternoon principally rests with last year's Irish-bred festival scorers Cooldine and Imperial Commander.
As the curtain comes down on the this week's Cotswolds gathering, it remains to be seen whether Kauto Star or Denman will take centre stage once more in the Totesport promotion for which they're backed up by stable companions Tricky Trickster and My Will in the 11-runner field.
If the balance of power is to shift elsewhere however, the only other credible challengers to the Nicholls dynasty appear to be Cooldine and Imperial Commander as few will be prepared to face into Carruthers, which never seems to spark here, Aintree hero Mon Mome or Calgary Bay.
Willie Mullins pins his hopes for a Gold Cup breakthrough on Cooldine, which ran away with the RSA Chase here 12 months back and is now partnered by Cork teenager Paul Townend as senior stable jockey Ruby Walsh is committed to defending champion Kauto Star.
Local trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, who has yet to bask in Blue Riband glory, also has another brilliant young Irish rider to aid his cause with Galway's Paddy Brennan aiming to repeat their Ryanair Chase success with Imperial Commander.
These talented handlers are under no illusion, however, about how formidable the Nicholls squad is today, with enigmatic 2008 victor Denman and thorough stayer Tricky Trickster poised to pick up the pieces if something should happen to go pear-shaped with Kauto Star.
On his 10th birthday though, the outcome surely revolves around Walsh's mount, whose last-gasp defeat of Imperial Commander at Haydock prefaced another tour de force around Kempton in the King George.
Granted, the last horse of that age to triumph in the showpiece of the festival was Cool Dawn in 1998, but of all the Nicholls-Walsh hotpots at this week's renewal, Clive Smith's gelding is the most celebrated.
Unless the heavens open on ground which was watered after racing on Wednesday to maintain a safe surface, expect Kauto Star to go off as firm favourite because it's anyone's guess whether the real Denman will show up after an unhappy experience in the Aon Chase at Newbury with Tony McCoy.
Elsewhere on the seven-race card, the going will be tough once more for punters with the JCB Triumph Hurdle and the Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle looking the best chance for more Irish-trained winners.
The perception that the race is there for the taking by one of the Nicholls stars remains, despite Denman's rare below-par effort at Newbury last month when he was already struggling before parting company with Tony McCoy.
Up to that point the media-driven notion that Kauto Star v Denman was the only game in town on Gold Cup day had gathered real momentum, so much so that National Hunt racing was becoming a mainstream sport coverage-wise rather than a largely country pursuit for many.
Maybe this latest chapter in their ongoing duel for the hearts and minds of jumping enthusiasts everywhere will thrill the maximum attendance once more, despite the series of shock results endured thus far.
Getting down to brass tacks, much will depend today on what level of ability and enthusiasm Denman retains for the game after a year in which the horse has recovered from a heart problem and a crashing fall at Aintree.
The omens weren't encouraging at Newbury in a substandard Aon Chase, so the odds about Kauto Star holding the whip hand once more have tightened again and it's quite possible that either Cooldine or Imperial Commander will pose a greater threat when the revs are cranked up in the final mile.
As a definite suspicion remains that Imperial Commander's stamina might prove his Achilles heel, we can expect Cooldine to come into his own and the Mullins runner rates the better each-way alternative.
Verdict -- Kauto Star to beat Cooldine.
A first Irish win since Scolardy (16/1) obliged for Willie Mullins in 2002 is a real possibility here as Alaivan, Carlito Brigante, Secant Star and Pittoni have shown the potential to make the grade over timber.
Of this quartet, Carlito Brigante done his chance no harm at all with successive victories at Musselburgh, having also put Alaivan firmly in his place in a mid-winter Grade Two race at Leopardstown.
Pittoni blotted his copybook at Navan last time out when clearly not in the whole of his health and might not have recovered sufficiently since to pose the same threat as the less exposed Secant Star.
Soldatino and the unbeaten Advisor are reputed to be the prime fancies for the home defence along with Olofi and Westlin Winds.
Verdict -- Go with Carlito Brigante.
Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh have won this event three times in the past six years and they rely this time on Tito Bustillo, which is a talented performer although one of the younger contestants.
Dangers abound with the likes of Bellvano and Eradicate coming here in fine form for the Henderson yard and the Irish squad is inclusive of Tawaagg, Thousand Stars, Puyol and the well-backed Noble Prince.
Verdict -- Tito Bustillo fits the bill.
A chance here for Quel Esprit to make quick amends for an early exit here on Wednesday as he retains the faith of Ruby Walsh when lining out again along with undefeated stablemate Enterprise Park.
The ex-Irish Tell Massini, which defeated Berties Dream late last year, and other previous course winners Shinrock Paddy and Restless Harry have likewise been prominent in the ante-post market.
Verdict -- Tell Massini (nap) appeals.
Roulez Cool and the older, more experienced Baby Run have accounted for the lion's share of the betting so far with veteran Trust Fund and Bob Hall also offering a stern test for the Irish hopefuls.
Proven here in his youth, Dun Doire and On The Net have been prospering in recent Irish point-to-points along with Kilty Storm, which was an impressive scorer too in a hunters' chase at Leopardstown.
Verdict -- Roulez Cool could oblige.
The unbeaten Peveril and course winner Lord Generous give the Henderson stable every chance of following up the 25/1 success of stable companion Andytown in the inaugural running of this event last year.
Further down the scale, watch out for Born Again and a rehabilitated C'est Ca from leading yards while the penalised pair Meath All Star and Quentin Collonges are lurking at the foot of the handicap.
Verdict -- Lord Generous is proven here.
Nicky Henderson won this race commemorating his late father with Greenhope in 2006 and has three runners on this occasion, including course and distance winner French Opera under top weight.
You're The Top is a decent second string for that yard while the Nicholls stable has often-placed Free World and decent money-spinner Tataniano on duty. Cornas might be up to this task on his best form.
Verdict -- Try a little on Cornas.