The Cheltenham Gold Cup is just over three weeks away, we take a look at the main talking points ahead of the race.
Is Imperial Commander good value at 7/2?
The ten-year-old was a very convincing winner of last season's Gold Cup but showed his other side when never jumping well and unseating his rider at Aintree on his next start. He's clearly best fresh, which is evidenced by his form figures of 1111121 after a break of 50 days or more. The last of those wins came in the Betfair Chase when taking some good horses apart and the fact he missed the King George at Kempton (where he's never performed well) could be a blessing in disguise.
Back at Cheltenham, where he's notched five wins from six starts over fences, he's going to be a massive player once again, but that doesn't necessarily make him a value bet at 7/2. For one, unless his main rivals fall by the wayside, he's not going to be much shorter on the day. Then there's the possibility that one of the younger brigade will improve past him. It's a long time since a horse aged 10 or older won the Gold Cup - Cool Dawn in 1998 to be exact - although he has relatively few miles on the clock and probably has one more big performance in him. Certainly, his trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies can be relied upon to have him cherry ripe on the day, but I won't be parting with my readies just yet.
Have Kauto Star and Denman had their day?
Probably. Kauto Star has turned 11 and has been on the go for several seasons now. He was clearly not quite right when finishing third in the King George, but he's going to regress sooner rather than later and he's now run three below par races in a row, including in this race last year. That was the second time he's hit the deck at Cheltenham and there are bound to be mental scares. His trainer Paul Nicholls is a master at revitalising ageing horses, but it would some training feat to get him back for this and he looks a place play to me.
Denman is the same age and has had a ton of hard races, including in this season's Hennessy, when carrying top weight into third behind Diamond Harry. Strictly on that form, he comes out a 10lb better horse than the winner and clearly retains plenty of ability, while the fact he will arrive at Cheltenham a fresh horse is a big plus. However, he wasn't quite good enough last season and it's hard to see him winning another Gold Cup a year on.
Can Long Run reproduce his King George form at Cheltenham?
That's the million dollar question for punters and, if he can, the current 8/1 would look huge. Few would argue that he's best suited to flatter tracks like Kempton, yet any 12-length winner of a King George should be able to go close at Cheltenham. The doubters will point to his Cheltenham record but they don't have a big sample to go on and there were feasible excuses both times: he simply wasn't at his best in last season's RSA Chase, and found the 2m4f of the Paddy Power Gold Cup too short, which prevented him from getting into any sort of rhythm.
With his once suspect jumping now much improved after an extensive schooling programme, he will go to Cheltenham in much better shape this time round and deserves another chance. There's still a nagging doubt his mental toughness for such a battle at this stage of his career and his amateur jockey, no matter how good Sam Waley-Cohen is, cannot be seen as a positive either, but I wouldn't be using the track as an excuse to take him on.
Any other horses worthy of attention?
Diamond Harry has always promised to take high rank over fences and so it proved in the Hennessy on his reappearance, where his jumping looked assured and he could be named the winner a long way out. Granted, he was a well-handicapped horse that day but he could do no more than win and he should now be at his peak at the age of eight. His Cheltenham form is a slight worry and he was pulled up in last season's RSA Chase, although that can be attributed to the quickish ground and some weary legs after a big run a month earlier. With his chance ground dependant, though, he cannot be considered for an ante post punt.
Of the rest, Punchestowns looked a suspect stayer over 3m at Cheltenham last time out and would be better suited to the 2m5f of the Ryanair, while the well-backed Pride Of Dulcote is desperately short of experience after just two runs over fences. That said, he's improving fast and a big run in the Betfair Chase at Ascot on February 19th will see a further reduction in his price. Kempes is no forlorn hope at 66/1 and his chance would be enhanced by good ground.
What are the best bets at this stage?
If pressed for the winner at this stage, I would have no hesitation in putting up Imperial Commander, although for reasons already discussed he's no value at 7/2. With the established stars looking a bit long in the tooth, the value might lie further down the betting list and KEMPES could be worth a small each-way investment at 66/1. That price will be history if he wins the rearranged Hennessy Gold Cup, which is not out of the question.