THE CHAMP

For a horse who had won already won a Grade One novice chase, and probably would’ve won another if it wasn’t for Paul Townend deciding to take a detour to B&Q in between the final two fences at Punchestown, it’s fair to say not much attention had been given to Al Boum Photo (8-1) in the lead up to last season’s Gold Cup.

It was fairly understandable as well, given his two best performances as a novice came in the final month of the campaign, after the Festival, where his fall caused Ruby Walsh another major injury and was a major influence on the great man’s decision to retire at the end of last season, and that his only start prior to Cheltenham in 2018/19 was a win in a Listed Chase at Tramore on New Years’ Day.

That’s not to say he was unfancied by any means, an SP of 12-1 was a fair enough reflection of what he’d achieved up to that point, but he was only the third string for Willie Mullins according to the market.

Nevertheless, after Kemboy departed the race at the second and as it became obvious Bellshill was not remotely happy, Al Boum Photo quickly developed in the prime Mullins contender.

He travelled through the race well and looked comfortable throughout, evidently appreciating every inch of the 3m2f trip.

There’s no reasons on paper as to why Al Boum Photo shouldn’t be as good, if not better, this time around- but it’s up for debate as to whether a run to the exact same level as it took for him to win the 2019 renewal would suffice in 2020.

Last season’s staying novice chasers look an above average group, and whilst this isn’t a stone to throw at Al Boum Photo himself, it could be argued that the Gold Cup slightly fell apart in behind him, what with Kemboy departing early, Bellshill never travelling and Presenting Percy returning with an injury.

A cynic could point to the fact that he’s only beaten the thorough stayer Anibale Fly only 2 ½ lengths rather than completely putting him to the sword as Native River and Might Bite did in 2018, and to the fact that he was defeated by Kemboy at Punchestown, as potential chinks in his armour.

Nevertheless, he’s a likeable enough type and is obviously well suited to the test the Gold Cup provides- though will he be the best staying chaser around this time next March?

That’s what he has to prove.

THE CHALLENGERS

In what other stable could the Gold Cup winner not finish the season as, officially, the best staying chaser in his own yard?

Unfortunately for Al Boum Photo, the handicapper rated the current Gold Cup market leader Kemboy (6-1) as his superior. Like Al Boum Photo, Kemboy was a good, rather than an outstanding, novice in 17/18- he was fourth in the JLT at Cheltenham and before having a tilt at the Irish National off retrospectively ridiculously low mark of 145.

Barring his mishap which saw him depart the Gold Cup within the first half mile, Kemboy is unbeaten from his last six completed starts, the last three of them all coming at Grace One level- namely the Savills Chase, Betway Bowl and Punchestown Gold Cup.

Kemboy showed at both Leopardstown and Aintree that even as a three-miler, he doesn’t lack for pace, though showed has also stamina in abundance when beating Al Boum Photo, who had joined him turning for home, at Punchestown, giving Ruby Walsh a dream farewell from the saddle. Arguably though, his best performance came a couple of weeks before that when stomping on Clan Des Obeaux and Bristol De Mai at Aintree without really coming off the bridle.

For a horse going into his third season over fences, he’s still remarkably unexposed and at this stage looks the correct market leader.

The horses who filled the placings behind Al Boum Photo last season, Anibale Fly (25-1) and Bristol De Mai (33-1), are also high class operators and should be taking their place in the line up again this season if all goes well.

Anibale Fly surely has to be one of the most underappreciated horses in training; his record of two Gold Cup placings and finishing fourth and fifth in two Grand Nationals is a wonderful CV and is testament to his guts and stamina- but he’s always to lack for pace at the top level and another podium finish would realistically be a wonderful result for his connections.

Bristol De Mai can often split opinion regarding his versatility, attitude and jumping but personally, I don’t think there’s too much wrong with any of them and his Gold Cup third last season was an away career best if we’re to count Haydock as his home.

That being said, like Anibale Fly, whether he’ll ever be good enough around Cheltenham to compete for a Gold Cup seems unlikely, though I don’t think anyone would begrudge either horse another good season next time around.

2018 Champion Native River (20-1) went winless last season but still emerged with credit for a series of valiant efforts in defeat- the Betfair and the King George were never likely to suit a former Welsh National winner- and he went well for a long way in the Gold Cup last season before possibly being found out for a bit of speed when push finally came to shove.

The fact that Native River’s first port of call this season appears to be an attempt to regain his Welsh National crown hopefully suggests that an inevitable crack at the Grand National itself will be on the agenda (although his ownership group, Brocade Racing, have had a couple of “National types” in the past decade and still haven’t had a runner) is probably illustrative of the fact that connections are now aware that Native River nowadays is best placed to operate over marathon distances- his Gold Cup won of two years ago was probably a performance of a horse running to his peak in his peak conditions.

Whether he has that much talent left, or would have the luck of the circumstances being so far in his favour again, seems unlikely enough, though his three Gold Cup efforts have never seen a worse finish the fourth.

Fifth home last season was the King George winner Clan Des Obeaux (20-1), who took his form to new level last season and illustrated again just how good Paul Nicholls is at executing a long term plan with a horse.

The general consensus after the Gold Cup last season was that Clan Des Obeaux didn’t fully see out the trip, though rewatching the race I’m not particularly sure whether I’m fully convinced by that argument that a lack of stamina was key to his defeat, he’s still travelling well and is bang there two-out and with another year under his belt, (he’ll still only be 8 next Cheltenham), I wouldn’t put it past him seeing the extra few furlongs this time around.

Nevertheless, he was put in his place by Kemboy at Aintree a few weeks later, though an excuse can be made for the manner of his defeat as Clan Des Obeaux clearly had a tough race in the Gold Cup whilst Kemboy was practically arriving fresh.

That being said, I wasn’t hugely keen on Clan Des Obeaux as a Gold Cup proposition at all last season, even following his King George victory- he’s always shaped like a horse who would prefer a flatter track and less of an out and out galloping test than what is customary in a Gold Cup.

Might Bite (N/A), favourite for this race exactly 12 months ago, actually ran his best race of the campaign in last season’s Gold Cup, but overall looks a shadow of the horse who finished the 17/18 season as the highest rated staying chaser in training and will go into this year with a huge amount to prove, whilst Bellshill (40-1), who was a long term Gold Cup fancy for me, never got into a rhythm and proved unequivocally that he just doesn’t like Cheltenham; his record there nowhere near the form he’s shown to win a Punchestown Gold Cup and an Irish Gold Cup.

In fact, of the nine horses who completed last season’s Gold Cup, the one who still sits closest to the the forefront of my mind is Presenting Percy (14-1). The secretive nature of Pat Kelly’s operation means that when he gets things right, he’s a genius, but when he gets things wrong, opinion on his lack of communication can flip from being enigmatic to downright unhelpful and frustrating.

I actually thought Presenting Percy looked close to his best when winning the Galmoy Hurdle, but the decision to go straight to Cheltenham after that and attempt to emulate 1929 champion Easter Hero, the only Gold Cup winner to have done so without having a prep run over fences, raised eyebrows to various levels amongst the racing public.

The fact that Presenting Percy featured in a number of entries in the month or two prior to the Festival but failed to take up an engagement also caused concern to some, and rumours swirled of all not being quite well at Kelly’s mystery HQ.

Presenting Percy returned lame from his below average performance in this year’s Gold Cup and subsequently wasn’t seen out again that season, but I’m struggling to forget how impressive he was when he tanked his way to victory in the 2018 RSA.

There’d have been at least 10 lengths between Presenting Percy and Al Boum Photo at the line had the latter stayed on his feet, and whilst his owner Philip Reynolds was happy to admit that Al Boum Photo may have been a much improved horse last term, Presenting Percy was so destructive that day that I still have faith in him being a top class chaser.

He’s won over further than the Gold Cup trip, so stamina is no issue, and in terms of both style and talent I think of him as somewhat of a “Denman mkII.” Back to full health this campaign, he’d be one I’d be keeping high on the shortlist, though any ante-post bets might be better off being wagered after his well-being has been proved on the track.

There’s also the small matter of a horse called Altior (14-1). There’s more about him in the Champion Chase preview, and we’ll certainly know more about the likelihood of him running in the Gold Cup come Boxing Day evening after we see how he’s fared in the King George.

If the Gold Cup becomes his Cheltenham target, a win there would surely propel his name into the debate from the greatest horse of all time, though another Champion Chase wouldn’t be shabby at all.

The Paul Nicholls pair Cyrname and Frodon are both available to back at 25-1, but surely would appear to have better chances in other races at the Festival- certainly this year Nicholls made the right choice in avoiding the temptation of the Gold Cup with Frodon and was duly rewarded with an emotional victory in the Ryanair, whilst Cyrname, for all that he’s officially the best steeplechaser in training, seems only capable of producing that level in a very narrow set of circumstances and is unproven over the Gold Cup trip anyway.

Finally, surely the most popular winner of the race would be the “little rat” that is Tiger Roll (25-1). His performances last season showed a level of ability that certainly would entitle him a place in the field for the most prestigious race of the season, but the target appears to be a third win in the Cross Country, and a fifth Festival win overall.

Nevertheless, the sport’s most recognisable horse would certainly add another layer of sparkle to an already glittering potential line up if plans were to change between now and March.

THE NEW FACES

There’s a few of them.

Last season’s staying novices should prove to be a well above average bunch and there’d be four of that generation at a minimum who would garnering hopes of making their mark felt at the top level in open company.

The RSA winner Topofthegame (10-1) is a strange beast- he’s about the size of three bed semi-detached and showed a possibly sign of quirkiness when shying away from the tape on chasing and giving his opposition a head start of around thirty lengths.

His only victory last season came when claiming the scalps of Santini and Delta Work at the Festival, his superior stamina almost certainly the telling factor on the day, though there was so little between that talented trio that it would be impossible to say for certain that he would come home in front again if the race was ran a few hours later.

His Cheltenham record is impressive, (he was only beaten a neck off a mark of 150 in the Coral Cup in 2018), and the extra two furlongs of the Gold Cup trip should be right up his alley. Nevertheless, a below par effort at Aintree after slightly tempers enthusiasm, though one could certainly make excuses regarding his fitness following a tough race at Cheltenham, as well as the flatter, sharper Aintree circuit not suiting him as well as Prestbury Park does.

Paul Nicholls been keen to stress that Topofthegame is more than an out and out boat, though personally I have reservations about whether he has the same number of gears as Kemboy or a peak Presenting Percy.

Santini (12-1) is a similar enough type to Topofthegame- both big, strong, staying types that physically scream long-distance chaser. Santini finished behind Topofthegame on both occasions they met last season, firstly in the Kauto Star and then again in the RSA, though he did manage to narrow the margin of defeat from 2 lengths to ½ a length.

Given what Santini has already achieved as a racehorse- he was a Grade 1 winning novice hurdler and has now been placed at two Cheltenham Festivals- it seems slightly insane to say that he’s still only had seven career starts under rules. The extra few furlongs of the Gold Cup trip should definitely suit and he’s clearly been brought along very carefully by the master Nicky Henderson, so it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the version of Santini we see next season as an upgrade once again.

In terms of raw ability though, I’d actually be of the opinion that Delta Work (14-1) was the most talented horse to run in last season’s RSA.

His third placed finish at last season’s Festival was only defeat in five novice chase starts last season, with three of those wins coming in Grade Ones. That being said, barring when he inflicted a rare defeat to Le Richebourg in the Drinmore,

he’s not had the strongest of opposition to beat in Mortal and Discorama, though every test he faced at home in Ireland didn’t seem to remotely phase him.

I’m sure Davy Russell would have to another crack at the horses who finished ahead of him in the RSA, as the ride he gave Delta Work arguably didn’t play to horses strengths as well as the rides Cobden and De Boinville gave to Topofthegame and Santini.

Delta Work, to me, seems a pacier horse than those two and is very much a Grade 1 level performer, though again whether the extra two furlongs of the Gold Cup will be an advantage to him isn’t as clear cut. Nevertheless, he’s certainly not ruled out of being in the mix for top honours this season.

The most viable contender coming out of the novice ranks may not have not in the RSA at all, though.

Lostintranslation (14-1), another big, physical unit of a racehorse, was runner up over half a mile shorter to Defi Du Seuil, whose scalped he claimed in the Dipper in New Year’s’ Day, in the JLT the following day. He’d always shaped like the best of him may be seen over further, though, and threw his hat well into the Gold Cup ring when making mincemeat of a potentially slightly off-colour Topofthegame at Aintree.

Even if Topofthegame wasn’t at his best that day, the ease with which Lostintranslation bested him in the Mildmay illustrated that he’s bang up there with the leading staying novices from last season, if not even the best himself.

The thing I like most about Lostintranslation is he seems very quick for a three-miler without looking like he has a lack of stamina- for a big horse especially it suggests that he can maintain a strong gallop for a long way.

He’s due to meet to Topofthegame again, and potentially Santini, in the Ladbrokes Trophy in December, which on paper is a race to absolutely savour- the 50-1 available for Lostintranslation to do the double with the Gold Cup is far from the worst bet in the world either. In fact, out of this stellar group of novices, he’s the one I’d consider to be likeliest Gold Cup winner in 2020