The countdown to The Festival began in earnest today with the unveiling of the entries for the highlight of the four-day spectacular, the Grade 1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday, March 16.
The 3m 2f showpiece, which carries record prize money of £625,000 in 2018, has attracted 38 entries this year, with a joint record high of 18 trained in Ireland.
Reigning Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup hero, eight-year-old Sizing John (Jessica Harrington IRE), and the talented Might Bite (Nicky Henderson), winner of last year’s RSA Chase at The Festival, are the star names among the entries following contrasting displays over Christmas.
Sizing John fluffed his lines in the G1 Leopardstown Christmas Chase won by Road To Respect (Noel Meade IRE), finishing down the field in seventh, while Might Bite overcame Double Shuffle (Tom George) by a length in the G1 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton Park.
Sizing John is bidding to become the first horse to win back-to-back Cheltenham Gold Cups since Best Mate (2002, 2003 & 2004).
Coney Island (Eddie Harty IRE) missed the Christmas action in favour of a graduation chase at Ascot on December 23, having not raced for just shy of a year, and justified the decision with an impressive nine-length victory over Adrien Du Pont.
The lightly-raced seven-year-old had three starts over fences in his novice season before injury intervened, headlined by a decisive victory over Anibale Fly (Tony Martin IRE) in the G1 Drinmore Novices’ Chase over two and a half miles at Fairyhouse in December, 2016.
Arguably, his best performance came later that month over a half a mile further when going down by a half-length to Our Duke (Jessica Harrington IRE) in the G1 Neville Hotels Novice Chase at Leopardstown.
Trainer Eddie Harty said: “I was delighted with Coney Island at Ascot. He has come out of it fit and well, and is ready to go again.
“He has been entered for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Ryanair Chase, and will also have entries in the Irish Gold Cup on February 4 and the Ascot Chase a fortnight later.
“We will go for one of those two and then make a decision about which race to aim for at Cheltenham after that.
“I think the Gold Cup picture looks as much as it did before Christmas. Might Bite did nothing wrong, Sizing John did, but that might have been down to the proximity of his prep race, and nothing else really came to the fore. My fella has shortened up in the betting after Ascot, but it was only a graduation chase. Touch wood and all being well, we will be able to decide where we are going after his prep run.
“I don’t have any concerns about his stamina, but it would have been stupid not to put him in the Gold Cup and the Ryanair as we are still nine weeks out from Cheltenham and can finalise plans nearer the time.”
As well as Might Bite, Nicky Henderson, seeking his third Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup success after Long Run (2011) and Bobs Worth (2013) also has entered Whisper, beaten a nose by his stable companion in the 2017 RSA Chase at The Festival and an excellent neck second in the Ladbrokes Trophy when giving a stone to Total Recall (Willie Mullins IRE) at Newbury in early December.
Irish-trained horses have won three of the last four runnings of the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup and Ireland’s hand is strengthened further by a team of five from the stable of Willie Mullins.
Mullins, who has saddled the runner-up on five occasions, could call upon Djakadam, second in both 2015 and 2016 and fourth when favourite in 2017, Total Recall, Killultagh Vic, Bachasson and Acapella Bourgeois.
Noel Meade has a strong hand, thanks to recent G1 victor Road To Respect, who was successful in handicap company at The Festival last year, and the progressive Disko, while Gordon Elliott’s three entries include G1 victor Outlander.
The home challenge features last year’s second and third, Minella Rocco (Jonjo O’Neill) and Native River (Colin Tizzard). The latter is yet to race this season but is being aimed at the race, while Native River’s stablemate Cue Card, a dual winner at The Festival but a faller in the last two Cheltenham Gold Cups, is also engaged.
Coneygree (Mark Bradstock), who in 2015 became the first novice since Captain Christy in 1974 to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, has recently had a wind operation following two disappointing efforts this season. Kauto Star (2007 & 2009) is the only horse to have regained the Cheltenham Gold Cup crown.
Nigel Twiston-Davies, victorious with Imperial Commander in 2010, is responsible for impressive G1 Betfair Chase hero Bristol De Mai and runaway Becher Handicap Chase victor Blaklion.