The 2020 Cheltenham Gold Cup is run on Friday the 13th of March. The trip is three miles, two furlongs and seventy yards. Native River who won the race two years ago, and last years winner Al Boum Photo are set to line up again. They are joined by last years top rated staying chaser Kemboy, as well as some of last seasons top novices, Delta Work, Santini and Lostintranslation, so it looks an intriguing renewal at this stage.

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Al Boum Photo won last year’s Gold Cup, and is the current ante post favourite, so I’ll start with him. He won a grade one as a novice although was beaten when falling in the RSA at Cheltenham, and only had one run at Tramore before last years Gold Cup. The race itself went well for him, apart from having to avoid a faller on the first circuit. He traveled well, led approaching two out, and after going about four lengths clear, he was closed down late by Anibale Fly. The pace was only fair and he was finishing quite quickly from the last, and although the third last was omitted, the last half mile was around eight lengths quicker than the two mile grand annual, so the second was in no way just picking up the pieces late, which really does hold down the form, as although Anibale Fly clearly likes the track and was third in the 2018 Gold Cup, he’s far from a real top staying chaser, and with so many fancied horses disappointing in behind it looks weak enough Gold Cup winning form.

Al Boum Photo was beaten by Kemboy at Punchestown on his only other start, and although that one had an easy enough time of it upfront, they were upsides when the pace quickened three out, so he had no real excuses. Like last year Al Boum Photo has only the one run this season, with his win at Tramore telling us he’s come back in good form, but not much else. It’s very likely this years Gold Cup will take more winning than last years, so he will likely need to improve, but he is only eight so that is entirely possible.

Santini was second, beaten a half length, in what looked a very hot RSA last season, with Delta Work just under two lengths back in third, with the trio sixteen lengths clear of the rest. They did well to put so much ground into the others, as it was far from a slog, indeed the race sectional from three out was slightly quicker than the Champion Chase that Altior won on the same card. Santini came off the bridle before the winner and third, but kept grinding away from two out, leaving the impression he would appreciate the extra two furlongs of the Gold Cup trip, on the slightly more galloping new course, the most of the placed horses.

Santini made a real meal of winning what should have been an easy assignment on his comeback at Sandown, and that run, along with his third at Kempton over Christmas in 2018, were probably his two most disappointing efforts compared to pre race expectations of his career. What both had in common is that apart from his debut at Newbury, they were the only times Timeform had ‘good’ in their going description. While a win and a third doesn’t sound bad, he didn’t meet expectations in either, and although he probably acts on good ground fine, the negative is probably more to do with it making it more about speed, and he doesn’t do anything quickly.

Santini improved a good bit on that Sandown effort when beating Bristol De Mai by three and a half lengths at Cheltenham last time. He was getting two pounds off the second though, and was very much flattered by the margin, as they went a solid pace, and the second was kicking on from a good way out, but got in close to the third last and having gone into the wings of that fence two lengths up, a peck on landing meant he was two lengths down by the time he got going again. He then had to be used up to get back in front jumping the second last, and it was only in the last hundred yards of a slow motion finish that Santini got back past him. The winner couldn’t have run any quicker from three out, were as the second could surely have run at least four lengths faster without that mistake, as it cost him that much ground, even without accounting for the energy cost, and the fact he ran sub-optimally from that point home. With that in mind Santini will need to improve to win a Gold Cup. The extra furlong will help, and he still has the scope to do better, but ideally you’d like to see heavy ground and it turn into a slog for him, and he would be very vulnerable if good is in the going description.

Delta Work didn’t have many excuses when third in last years RSA but that was still very good form, and since then he has won three grade one races, quickly getting over a disappointing return at Down Royal to win at Leopardstown over Christmas and again two weeks ago in the Irish Gold Cup. He only got up late to beat Monalee in the Savills Chase, and it was a case of the second stopping from the last than enabled him to do so, and with Jett beaten only around eleven lengths and shaping better than the result, the form wouldn’t be Gold Cup winning standard

You could make a case that Delta Work improved a few pounds on that win when beating Kemboy by a length and a half in the Irish Gold Cup last time, but again the proximity of Jett in fourth in another well run race does limit the form somewhat, and the second didn’t jump well. It’s likely Delta Work needs to improve around seven pounds to win the Gold Cup, but he’s won six of his eight chase starts, is only seven years of age, and in being strong at the finish in two well run three mile races, he shapes like the extra distance of the Gold Cup won’t prove a problem to him, so more improvement is likely.

Lostintranslation shaped like two and a half miles wasn’t enough of a test for him last year, and he got a poor ride in the JLT when setting a steady pace and getting done for toe by Defi Du Seuil. He hacked up when stepped up to three miles at Aintree, although you wouldn’t want to take his beating of Topofthegame literally as that one was clearly well below form. After an easy reappearence win at Carlisle, he traveled and jumped really well, before picking up well when asked to beat Bristol De Mai at Haydock in the Betfair Chase. He was very impressive the way he got to the front, although the pace was on the steady side, and he was doing the second for toe more than anything, meaning although it’s likely he’ll stay, he does still need to prove himself over the Gold Cup trip in an evenly run race.

Lostintranslation didn’t travel or jump as well as normal in the King George at Kempton last time. He was niggled from a long way out, but once he rider pulled him to the outside jumping the fifth last he seemed to take a hold of the bit, and moved up to challenge at the fourth last, looking to have a great chance at the time. He reached for that fence and was beaten instantly on landing, so you would have to assume he twinged something with that jump. The official excuse afterwards was a breathing problem, and he has had a wind op since. If he’s back in the same sort of form he was at Haydock he surely has a solid chance.

Clan Des Obeaux’s two career best efforts came at Kempton, both times in winning the King George, but you could easily pick holes in the form, as beating a past it Thistlecrack by a length and a half, as he did in 2018, is nothing to get overly excited about, and in this seasons race, while he won by twenty two lengths in the end, there was little substance to the form, with Lostintranslation not running his race, and Cyrname stopping in the straight, leaving him to come home in his own time. It’s doubtful he needed to improve to win like he did, and if that’s the case he’s going to find it hard in the Gold Cup as he didn’t seem to quite get home when fifth last year, and this could very well be a better race.

Kemboy ended up rated last seasons top staying chaser despite getting no further than the first in the Gold Cup, but he won three grade one races, including impressive wins at Aintree and Punchestown after Cheltenham. He beat Al Boum Photo two lengths at Punchestown, although he did get to lead for most of that race without going quick, and also had a handy enough time of it in front at Aintree. It was a similar story when he made most at Leopardstown in December 2018, having initially jumped off in behind. I’ve read some negative comments regarding his ability to handle Cheltenham, but that’s nonsense really, as there is no evidence to back that up, he ran up to form in his two previous runs there, and his unseat at the first last year was the result of him getting hampered and then losing his footing on landing, and that could have happened anywhere.

What is a concern is that his three grade one chase wins all came when he got to lead without going an even pace, and he’s very unlikely to be allowed to do that in this Gold Cup. He’s looked slightly below his best in two runs this year, with a series of minor mistakes costing him when second to Delta Work last time. He is definitely  capable of better, but does need to prove he can jump well when he doesn’t get things his own way.

Native River won the Gold Cup in 2018 after a titanic battle with Might Bite from a long way out, that one traveled better than him, but Native River eventually ground him down, and won by four and a half lengths at the line. Native River didn’t win in three starts last season, but it’s likely he was just as good as ever, doing all you’d expect of him when second in a steadily run Betfair Chase on his comeback, and again when third in the King George on good ground, the race a strange choice by connections, as it was never going to suit him. He was then slowly into his stride at Cheltenham in the Gold Cup, meaning he got shuffled back in the pack, and had to do plenty of work to get himself in front passing the stands with a lap to go. The good to soft ground was much quicker than the heavy ground he had won on the previous March and he never looked to be in his comfort zone, but he showed his never give up attitude to keep going for fourth.

Native River ran out a wide margin winner on his comeback at Aintree in December, although it was a worry that in a four runner race, he again took plenty of rousting in the first half furlong to get to the front. He seemed to get into his stride quicker at Newbury last time, and although the second came there travelling better approaching the second last, Native River stayed on strongly to win by almost three lengths from Secret Investor. That’s a long way from Gold Cup winning form, but it’s all you’d expect from even a peak form Native River in a less than evenly run race, on good ground, over short of three miles, so the indications are that he is likely still as good as ever, but he does need a real test at the Gold Cup trip, and while on soft to heavy ground he’d have a right chance, it would be hard to see him win on ground with good in the description.

The hype over Presenting Percy last year, seemed to have more to do with the horn the media had for his trainer and his eccentric methods than anything the horse did on the track, and that seemed to filter into the betting markets, as he went off favourite for the Gold Cup despite not being seen over fences since winning the previous years RSA. His form didn’t come close to justify his position in the market, and he after a few mistakes he could only manage eight of sixteen. He’s had a better preparation this season, with a very promising third over a trip too short at Punchestown in December, but a fifth of eight at Christmas, and third of eight  in the Irish Gold Cup last time, without any real excuses do seem to have exposed his limitations. Form-wise he’s not far behind a few of those at the head of the market, but the likes of Delta Work who beat him here, and Santini, surely have much more scope to improve.

Of the others, Bristol De Mai makes some appeal at the prices. For a horse that ran his rivals into submission in a heavy ground Betfair Chase at Haydock in 2017, it’s perhaps surprising that over only slightly further, he has finished quite weakly in his two tries in the Gold Cup, shaping better than the result when seventh in 2017, and again when third last year, having briefly looked like winning approaching the second last. He looks as good as ever this season, getting out-speeded when second to Lostintranslation at Haydock, before a mistake at the third last cost him when beaten by Santini last time. As mentioned earlier in this piece I felt that mistake cost him the race, and he was giving the second two pounds as well. Santini clearly has more scope to improve, but Bristol De Mai is 33/1, versus the 4/1 available on Santini, and if you can get that non runner no bet, then I certainly wouldn’t put you off it.

Apart from a small each way bet on Bristol De Mai I wouldn’t back anything else just yet. Ground conditions on the day will have a huge effect on the respective chances of plenty of these. Goodish ground would be a big negative for the likes of Santini and Native River, but on soft or heavy I’d have them as the most likely winners.

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