Comment: Bizarre year sees the Gold Cup developing like a mysterious Agatha Christie whodunnit
Talking to the Deputy Sports Editor on Wednesday, I confidently predicted that 2/5 favourite Apple's Jade would get beaten in the Quevega Hurdle at Leopardstown that afternoon. Why? Because that's the kind of year it's been. Sure enough, Apple's Jade lost by two lengths to Limini, which promptly replaced her as favourite for the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham.
But the ultimate proof that this is the most confounding year had come 24 hours earlier when Colin Tizzard announced that Thistlecrack would miss the Gold Cup after sustaining a damaged tendon in training. Thistlecrack had been clear favourite for the big race even before easily dismissing top-class opposition in the King George VI Chase on St Stephen's Day when he looked like the kind of talking horse the blue riband hadn't seen since Kauto Star.
Back then, just two months ago, the big two races at Cheltenham looked predictable enough. Thistlecrack would take the Gold Cup while Faugheen would return from injury and regain the Champion Hurdle, confirming his status as a truly exceptional horse. Now they're both out.
It gets worse. Annie Power, Faugheen's more-than-capable deputy, has also bitten the dust, while Thistlecrack's pre-eminence in the betting market had owed a lot to the absence through injury of the previous two Gold Cup winners, Coneygree and Don Cossack.
It's not just injury which is making this year's Festival very difficult to get a handle on. Apple's Jade isn't the only big odds-on loser of late. Jezki, just beginning to attract significant punting love in the Champion Hurdle, was beaten when 2/5 at Gowran Park last weekend. The previous week Bellshill, 5/6 and favourite for the RSA Chase at Cheltenham, fell when already out of contention in the Flogas Novice Chase at Leopardstown. Slightly earlier that afternoon at the same meeting, Triumph Hurdle fancy Bapaume had been a well-beaten second in the Spring Novice Hurdle while 7/4 favourite.
Of course favourites often get beaten and contenders do get injured but the situation at the moment does seem to be exceptionally confusing. Usually at this stage we'd have seen the emergence of an outstanding contender to sweep all before them in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. This year the current favourite is Willie Mullins' Melon, undoubtedly talented but bidding to become the first horse ever to win the race in just a second outing over hurdles.
I had some sympathy for the tipster who, when previewing the Champion Hurdle during the week, dismissed practically every contender as not even being the first cousin of a Champion Hurdle horse. Yet something has to win and the most impressive CV probably belongs to Yorkhill, winner of last year's Neptune Novices' Hurdle at the Festival. However, Willie Mullins insists that Yorkhill will go for the JLT Novices' Chase instead - so the betting market is headed by Yanworth, a well-beaten second in that Neptune, and Buveur D'Air and Petit Mouchoir, third and eighth respectively in last year's Supreme Novices'. Who'd have predicted that 12 months ago? Should Mullins send Limini to the Champion rather than the Mares' Hurdle she'd be in with a definite shout.
Anyone watching Native River coming second in last year's National Hunt Chase would scarcely have expected him to be favourite for the Gold Cup in 2017 either. The Grand National would have seemed a much more likely target. His main rivals in the betting right now are Cue Card, bidding to become the oldest winner since What A Myth in 1969, and Djakadam, whose chance appeared to have slipped away after he finished second in 2015 and 2016. With the Gold Cup increasingly resembling an Agatha Christie whodunnit where the leading characters are bumped off one by one, both have risen through the ranks by a process of elimination.
Once marginal Irish contenders such as Gordon Elliott's Lexus Chase winner Outlander, Jessica Harrington's Irish Gold Cup winner Sizing John - and possibly even Henry de Bromhead's Champagne West, which ran away with the Thyestes Chase at Gowran - may yet have a say.
Right now the only certs seem to be the dynamic duo of Douvan and Altior, and even then you'd be keeping a nervous eye out in case something might befall them in training too. Mark my words, one of the big races is going to see a horse in a winning position come down at the last.
It's just that kind of year.
Sunday Indo Sport