The Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup is the jewel in the crown of the National Hunt season. Run over 3miles 2 furlongs and 70 yards it is the ultimate staying test and in this year’s renewal it may well be those last 70 yards that decide the winner as it would appear to be a red hot renewal. Who will follow in the footsteps of the greats that have landed this prestigious prize such as Kauto Star, Denman and Best Mate, to name but a few of the more recent champions. Let’s have a look at the contenders and see if we can unravel the puzzle. The current market leader is Gordon Elliot’s Don Cossack who is a multiple Grade One winner and has won 11 of his 18 starts over fences including the Melling Chase and Punchestown Gold Cup along with many other of the top prizes in Ireland. He had been impressive on his first two starts this season in Ireland before falling at the last in the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day when he appeared to have the measure of eventual winner Cue Card. There is some debate as to whether he would have won the race but I’m inclined to think he would have gone very close given that he appeared to have the beating of Cue Card at the time he departed. The important thing is that he would have gone very close, despite things not really going his way throughout the race. Don Cossack appeared to find the track a little sharp for his liking and was also shuffled back at a key point in the race so it’s with great credit that he was able to get back into the race at the business end. That performance despite the fall confirmed to everyone that he is a top class staying chaser and a worthy favourite for this race. He has been to Cheltenham twice before and disappointed, firstly when falling when travelling OK in the RSA Chase and then when beaten for speed in the Ryanair behind Uxizandre last year. We know that he is a very good horse and he is sure to run a solid race, but for some reason I remain unconvinced that he will win. Current second favourite is Willie Mullins superstar Vautour who arrives here after being beaten in a photo finish in the King George. He has two previous victories at the Cheltenham Festival in the Supreme Novices Hurdle and last year’s JLT Chase which is a huge positive. He would appear to be a much better horse going left handed an indeed a lot has been made of his tendency to jump out to the left, particularly at Ascot prior to the King George. It was therefore very striking that he went so close in the King George and he looked certain to win going to the last before being reeled in late on. That has brought about some question marks regarding his stamina and it is something I would definitely be concerned about if there was cut in the ground come Gold Cup Day. For whatever reason Vautour reminds me of Kauto Star whose best efforts in the Gold Cup came when he was able to track the pace and utilise his turn of foot, something which is very hard to achieve in a strongly run race with any cut in the ground, for instance when Kauto was beaten by Denman. There is a big difference between staying 3 miles around the likes of Kempton and staying the Cheltenham Gold Cup trip and if either scenario of a strongly run race or soft ground occurs (and both are likely) then I don’t see Vautour having the reserves of stamina at this stage of his career to deal with that. Willie Mullins has a strong hand in this year’s Gold Cup and Djakadam also has leading claims in this year’s renewal. He finished strongly in last year’s race to finish second to Coneygree but was never really able to land a blow. That was by far his best run to date and he remains open to significant improvement. He returned at Punchestown to win the John Durkan in good style on heavy ground in December before falling at Cheltenham in his prep race for the Gold Cup in the Betbright Chase. He is very highly regarded and clearly has some sort of a chance judged on last season’s effort but the level of his form simply doesn’t stack up against the likes of Don Cossack. Djakadam has just 4 wins from 9 starts over fences and his best two performances came in the Thyestes (handicap chase) and the John Durkan where he didn’t beat any world beaters. Both of those races were on heavy ground and he has fallen on two of his 3 starts at Cheltenham. Backers of Djakadam are taking a leap of faith that he will show the vast improvement needed to win this race and at his current odds he is priced as if that is a certainty. There also cannot have been many previous Cheltenham Gold Cup winners that had fallen on their most recent start and for me there are just too many question marks regarding Djakadam to be backing him at his current price against such a high quality field. Willie Mullins number one contender for this year’s crown in my opinion is Don Poli. He is quite simply a street fighter, which is exactly what we need. Last year’s RSA Chase winner is 5 from 6 over fences and has started his season well with victories at Aintree and in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown. Some critics highlight that he was not particularly impressive on either occasion but neither race was ever likely to be run to suit and like all great Champions he found a way to win. I am almost certain that Don Poli is just bone idle and only just does enough. At the end of the day he had the speed to win a Martin Pipe so I don’t think he is devoid of pace, but he is certainly a thorough stayer. Importantly, he seems to love the Cheltenham Hill, having bounded up it twice to victory. The hill really brings his stamina into play in much the same way as it did for Ingles Drever. It may be a little controversial but Don Poli is my idea of the most likely winner here as he looks sure to be involved regardless of how the race is run. He is a fantastic jumper, has been here and done it at the festival twice, doesn’t have many miles on the clock and appears to have bottomless stamina; he ticks all the right boxes. The only thing that puts me off backing him at his current price is the strong likelihood that he will be a bigger price in running on the day as he may get a little outpaced at some stage, but if he is within 10 lengths turning for home I think he’ll win. For that reason I recommend potentially topping up on him with an in-running bet on the day. Colin Tizzard’s Cue Card is another who could quite easily be involved at the finish having showed massively improved form this season in winning the Charlie Hall, Betfair Chase and King George. That is clearly the best form of the season but I am more than a little concerned about this test of stamina for Cue Card, particularly given that those performances must surely have left their mark, despite having been given plenty of time to recover. He has been a revelation since undergoing surgery for a trapped Epiglottis but in all of his runs to date I have never seen signs of the abundant stamina required for this test. It is also quite possible that he has peaked too soon this season. It is extremely difficult to keep bringing horses back to their best and even if he were to run to the same level as he did in the King George that might still not be enough in this company. I would love him to win but I’m not convinced there is going to be enough left in the tank to climb the hill in front. Alan King’s Smad Place was an impressive winner of the Hennessy and the Betbright Chase this season, running below par in the King George in between. Positive front running tactics have proven to be the secret with him and we can expect him to be setting the pace throughout. In my opinion he doesn’t have the class to make all in a Gold Cup against this level of opposition and his presence in the race is a massive positive for the likes of Don Poli who will benefit from a strongly run race. Smad Place’s front running tactics may also hinder the chances of Vautour who himself likes to dictate the pace and has unproven stamina. I expect Smad Place to run and jump well for a long way but ultimately give way to stronger stayers brought into the race from off the pace. In a Gold Cup with significant depth there are yet more viable contenders in the form of Road To Riches, Holywell, Carlingford Lough and Many Clouds. Road To Riches was disappointing last time out in the Irish Gold Cup when he should have finished third behind Carlingford Lough but for the fall of Valseur Lido at the last which promoted him to second. His performance in last season’s Gold Cup was very impressive though when he duelled with Coneygree up front before eventually giving way up the hill to finish a close third. If he can return to that form he would have a big shout but his most recent run wasn’t close enough to that form for me to think about backing him and he may not even line up with the Ryanair Chase still a possibility. His recent conqueror Carlingford Lough may not have been given the credit he deserves for his win in the Irish Gold Cup where he proved that he has the stamina for this contest, staying on strongly in the closing stages. However, his overall profile is not one of consistency and his strike rate of 5 wins from 20 starts over fences doesn’t scream Gold Cup Winner. Holywell is an interesting contender at a big price. He ran well enough in the race last season, finishing fourth on ground that would have been much softer than ideal. He doesn’t come to hand until the spring and so his recent runs can be forgiven and offer little reflection of his chances come March. Ultimately, I think he is just below top class and I think he could be ridden for a place before having a crack at the Grand National at Aintree, a race which could really play to his strengths. However, at his current odds of 50/1 he is worth a small bet each way given that he is certain to be held up off a strong pace. At one quarter odds for a place he looks a better value bet than backing some of those at the head of the market to win. Many Clouds likewise will be keen not to have too hard of a race with a defence of his Grand National title around the corner. He too has been campaigned with the spring in mind and a step up on his recent form is expected but I don’t expect him to leave his season behind here when the Grand National is clearly the number one aim. To summarise, this looks like a very strong Gold Cup and one which is certain to be run at a decent pace set by Smad Place and Vautour. They look like setting the race up for Don Poli who can prove his class and bottomless stamina. I intend on backing him in two stages, antepost at his current odds and in-running as they turn for home when he has work to do; then it is down to the horse to take off up the hill and silence the critics! A small each-way bet on Holywell is also recommended at 50/1 to pick off some of the more fancied runners in the closing stages from off the pace. Recommended Bets: 2pts WIN – DON POLI @ 13/2 (888Sport, 6/1 General) 1pt EACH WAY – HOLYWELL @ 50/1 (General) 2pts WIN DON POLI (In running on Betfair turning for home if within 10 lengths) CHECK OUT THE BENEFITS OF JOINING US AS A FREE OR COMMUNITY MEMBER