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Cheltenham Gold Cup picture

Last weekend, an intriguing Cheltenham Gold Cup picture – insofar as there is a Cheltenham Gold Cup picture in December – got more intriguing still.

On Saturday, Don Poli, one of the top staying novice chasers of last season, went to Aintree for his seasonal debut and won the Befred Lotto Chase, beating the 2015 Grand National winner Many Clouds by four lengths.  Then on Sunday at Punchestown, last season’s Gold Cup runner-up Djakadam put up a scintillating display to win the John Durkan Memorial Chase by 12 lengths.

This has been a feature of this year’s National Hunt season to date.  The term is barely two months old, yet just about all the top staying chasers have run, and all of them have won.  Vautour won the Stella Artois Chase at Ascot, Road To Riches won the Clonmel Oil Chase, Don Cossack won the Irish Daily Star Chase at Punchestown, then followed up by winning the Champion Chase at Down Royal.

It was only a three-horse race that Coneygree won at Sandown, but he won it doing handsprings and he clocked a fast time.

At the start of the season, we hadn’t even reckoned on Cue Card or Smad Place as Gold Cup aspirants, but they are at least on the ballpark now, Cue Card after winning the Charlie Hall Chase before putting up one of the best performances of his career in winning the Betfair Chase, Smad Place after winning the Hennessy by 12 lengths.  Even Sir Des Champs – remember Sir Des Champs? – the 2013 Gold Cup runner-up, staked a claim when he won at Thurles last month on his first run in almost two years.

Put all of those wins with the Don Poli and Djakadam victories from last weekend, and it means that the top nine in the ante post betting for the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup have between them run 12 times this season to date, and they have won all 12 times.

It is difficult to think of an era in recent times in which there has been such strength in-depth among the staying chasers.  Kauto Star and Denman were, of course, giants of the sport, and the three seasons during which the Ditcheat Duo went toe-to-toe were special, but they were dominant.  Exotic Dancer couldn’t get close to them, Neptune Collonges couldn’t get close to them.

Imperial Commander was a good Gold Cup winner, but he came along at the tail end of the Kauto Star/Denman era.  They were 10 years old when Nigel Twiston-Davies’ horse beat them in his Gold Cup, and they were 11 when Long Run beat them in his.

The 1985/86 season was a fascinating one, the staying chasers headed up by Dawn Run and Forgive ‘N Forget and Wayward Lad, but Wayward Lad was 11 when he lined up for the 1986 Gold Cup.  Michael Dickinson’s horse probably belonged more to the previous era, the Burrough Hill Lad era, and even that was more a duopoly than anything else.  Like the Arkle/Mill House era then.  Or maybe that era was more monopoly than duopoly.

The thing about this season’s class of staying chasers is that it is replete with youngsters.  Vautour and Don Poli are only six years old.  Two of last season’s leading novice chasers, they will be only seven when the Gold Cup is run.

Djakadam, runner-up in last season’s Gold Cup, is also just six.  Coneygree is older, but he was just a novice last season.  He was the first novice to win the Gold Cup since Captain Christy in 1974.  He is eight years old but, quite remarkably for a Gold Cup winner, he has raced just five times over fences.  All things being equal, he has many more miles to clock up.

In times gone by, you could look for the improver at the start of the season, the youngster who was under the bookmakers’ radar and who had the potential to progress sufficiently to be a Gold Cup horse.  Kicking King was one, War Of Attrition was another, Imperial Commander was another.  This year, there probably won’t be one.  All the young horses are out in the open, all still with more potential to progress, and it is difficult to believe that something else could emerge from under cover to improve past all of them.  Maybe Valseur Lido, but it’s a big ask.

There was a school of thought that said that last season’s Gold Cup was so tough, run at such an unrelenting gallop on such taxing ground, that the first three horses home might struggle this season.  That the three of them had to dig so deep, scraping the very depths of their energy reserves, that it might take them all a season or more to recover.  That hasn’t been the case.  One by one, Coneygree, Djakadam and Road To Riches, they have all popped out this season and they have all looked decidedly sprightly in victory.

Just about every horse that you would want to be in the Gold Cup picture is in there.  Last year’s Gold Cup 1-2-3, last year’s RSA Chase winner, last year’s JLT Chase winner, this year’s Chase winner, this year’s Betfair Chase winner, this year’s Hennessy winner.

So can you call it?  Very difficult.  Even the major bookmakers cannot agree on a favourite.  Vautour or Coneygree or Djakadam or Don Cossack, depending on which bookmaker you pick.

There are commonalities.  Six of the top nine in the market are trained in Ireland, four are trained by Willie Mullins, four are owned by Gigginstown House and two are owned by Susannah Ricci.

So what’s next?  Don Cossack, Vautour and Cue Card will probably run in the King George at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day, Smad Place may join them.  Don Poli, Road To Riches and Sir Des Champs could all run in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown on 28th December, and Coneygree could make the trip.  Djakadam could also run in the Lexus, or he could skip Christmas altogether.

All things being equal, we should get to see most of the leading contenders in action over the Christmas period.  We will know a lot more after the King George and the Lexus are run.  You almost don’t want it to happen though, you nearly don’t want to know.  For now, it’s all about potential.  The intrigue is in the uncertainty.

© The Sunday Times, 13th December 2015