Bristol De Mai before the Betfair Chase (@WattyRacing) 

By Samantha
To begin this preview of one of the greatest races of them all, I would like to take you back to the beginning of the season or, more precisely, the 24th November 2018.

I’ll set the scene for you: five horses lined up to take their chance in the first grade one of the season – The Betfair Chase. Bristol De Mai had won it in 2017 on bottomless ground by a whopping fifty seven lengths. He faced Gold Cup Winner Native River; King George winners Might Bite and Thistlecrack and a six year of Paul Nicholls’ who’d followed in Might Bite and Bristol De Mai at Aintree in the spring, in this renewal.

Bristol De Mai went out in front in his trademark style round his beloved Haydock. When push came to shove, no one could lay a hand on him. He went clear up the run-in with Native River plugging on for second, Thistlecrack in third, after tanking for most of the way but his jumping letting him down, and Clan Des Obeaux finishing fourth. Twenty lengths behind the field, Might Bite trailed home almost at a walk.

Meanwhile, over in Ireland, the favourite and big talking horse of the entire Cheltenham Festival, Presenting Percy, had not made his seasonal debut.

Just over a month later, it was time for the second leg of the ‘Jumps Triple Crown’ – the King George VI Chase – and those five were to face off again. They represented half of the field and were joined by 2015 Gold Cup winner Coneygree, who was retired later in the year; 2017 King George second Double Shuffle; grade one winner Tea For Two and two top-class horses stepping up in trip – Politologue and Waiting Patiently. Might Bite, despite his awfully disappointing run last time out, was favourite at 3/1 and Bristol De Mai was 8/1.

For this premier race, Bristol De Mao was ridden more conservatively in mid division but, at the ninth, disaster struck. He stumbled and fell, completely wiping out Waiting Patiently.

The whole complexity of the race changed then. The third and fourth of the Haydock race jumped the last sync and turned the entirety of the form on its head when Clan Des Obeaux won by one and a half lengths. Thistlecrack showed a good return to form by coming second and Native River stayed on in his usual gutsy style for third. Might Bite crossed the line in last place, thirty six lengths behind Clan Des Obeaux.

The next day Elegant Escape won the Coral Welsh Grand National, beating Yala Enki. It has been reported that trainer Colin Tizzard said dismiss him at your peril for this grade one showpiece.

Over the Irish Sea, on the 28th December, young pretender Kemboy shot himself into the limelight under David Mullins, when beating a classy field, containing Shattered Love who gets 7lbs from the boys in the Gold Cup, by seven and a half lengths in the grade one Savills Chase over three miles. A couple of days later, stablemate Al Boum Photo hosed up by six lengths in a Listed race of the same name, beating Invitation Only, over two miles and five furlongs.

Even at the beginning of 2019, we’d not seen the favourite yet. Racing fans had to wait almost until the first of January before Presenting Percy resurfaced. He made his reappearance in a grade two hurdle and won well. All antepost punters, who’d lumped on after the RSA, breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Midway through February, King George winner Clan Des Obeaux enhanced his Cheltenham credentials in the Denman Chase (which was won by Native River in 2018 before he went on to win the Gold Cup). Also that day, over in Ireland, Aniable Fly was second in the Red Mills Chase.

Now the Cheltenham Gold Cup is upon us and the excitement is building.

We haven’t seen Bristol De Mai, Might Bite, Native River or Thistlecrack since the King George VI Chase. Also, firm favourite Presenting Percy hasn’t been seen over fences since the RSA in 2018 so, for me, there is no way I could fancy him to win it. An appealing factor is that he has some of the best course form as he has won twice at the Festival.

The weather has not been kind and, with a smattering of rain forecast overnight, there is a chance that it could become a slog so I believe horses who have assured stamina and soft ground form will go well. Native River looks the obvious one that can tick those two boxes. In 2016, he won the Hennessy Gold Cup (now known as the Ladbrokes Trophy) and the Welsh Grand National on soft going for Colin Tizzard. This is the perfect test for him and I really hope he can rekindle last year’s form.

Native River may have won this last year but his trainer has two other live chances in the race. I’ll begin with Elegant Escape on the basis that he is more likely to stay and handle the ground. He won the Welsh Grand National on soft going, beating Yala Enki. Last time, he was second to Frodon, who won the Ryanair, in the Cotswold Chase and he was staying on less than ideal ground. I don’t think he has the star quality to win but 16/1 is a good each way price. The gelding is by Dubai Destination, who was a good quality flat horse and has already sired a Cheltenham festival winner this week when Roksana won the Mares Hurdle. Their other runner is Thistlecrack and he is an excellent horse but he is now eleven. He has only been beaten ten times and put in a much improved run to be second in the King George, beaten only a length and a half.

Clan Des Obeaux will be one of the favourites on Friday after winning his last two races in great style. He is probably the one to beat but a worrying factor is that he’s never won at this course or ran over further than three miles so there are stamina doubts.

Nicky Henderson and Might Bite

Another horse who may not stay up the infamous Cheltenham Hill is Might Bite. He didn’t stay last year when finishing behind Native River. He underperformed on both tries in the back end of 2018 and it came to light that Might Bite had a wind issue and has undergone an operation to fix this. It will be a massive task to get him back but he’s in the best hands as Nicky Henderson nursed Sprinter Sacre back to health from a heart condition.

If you can fancy the aforementioned horses, you have to like the chances of Bristol De Mai. He beat Ckan Des Obeaux, Thistlecrack, Might Bite and Native River convincingly at the start of the season. The way I look at it is, if he hadn’t have fallen, who knows what would’ve happened? He will like the soft ground and connections obviously think he will stay or he wouldn’t also have an entry in the Grand National. Some people pigeon he him as a Haydock specialist, which in a way he is, but he has ran well around here before and has each way claims.

The other English challengers are Definitely Red, Double Shuffle and Yala Enki. I liked Definitely Red for this race at the start of the year but, last time out, he was beaten by a horse rated 21lbs less. Double Shuffle put in a career best when second to Might Bite in the 2017 King George. He’s a lovely horse but he isn’t at this standard. Yala Enki is one of my favourites. He is such a cool horse and rarely runs a bad race. He has bundles of stamina and will like the ground.

There is a seven strong representation in this race from the other side of the Irish Sea. Willie Mullins trains four of them but he, believe it or not, has never had a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner! Ruby Walsh rides Bellshill, who won the Irish equivalent last time out and the Punchestown Gold Cup in April, but he was behind Kemboy in the Savills Chase. That horse, who is to be partnered by Grand National winning jockey David Mullins, won his last four races and will like the conditions. He kept on strongly and I think he seems very progressive as he’s only seven. Al Boum Photo is a bit of a monkey but he’s classy on his day as he won the Ryanair Gold Cup, beating Gordon Elliott’s mare Shattered Love and his stablemate Invitation Only, who is one of the outsiders at 66/1.

Shattered Love gets 7lbs from the boys and it has been a but of a theme of the girls beating the boys this Cheltenham Festival but I’d be surprised if she featured. She won the JLT at this meeting last year. Aniable Fly is a good horse and will relish conditions but doesn’t look up to this standard.

In conclusion, my faith is with NATIVE RIVER and Dicky Johnson to win a second Golf Cup but I think Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Bristol De Mai will run a big race. Elegant Escape and Kemboy could run to a place too. I can’t wait to see how it plays out.

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