Having threatened to look like a straightforward rematch between last year’s front two, the Cheltenham Gold Cup market has been blown wide open over the Christmas period.
The early season betting was dominated by defending champion Minella Indo and stablemate from the Henry de Bromhead yard A Plus Tard, with a lack of obvious dangers stepping up from novice company following the injury to Willie Mullins’ Monkfish.
But, in the space of three days in late December, the picture has changed significantly with Minella Indo failing to finish in the King George VI Chase at Kempton and Galvin stripping A Plus Tard of his Savills Chase crown at Leopardstown.
- Al Boum Photo kicks off Gold Cup prep at Tramore
- Minella Indo ‘shook’ after disappointing King George trip
Here is a look at the main Cheltenham Gold Cup contenders and how they stand going into 2022…
Last year’s runner-up shot to the top of the market after a hugely impressive reappearance in November, winning the Grade One Betfair Chase at Haydock by an eye-catching 22 lengths.
On paper that represented the strongest form of the season, but a deeper look finds that Royale Pagaille, in second, finished with an injury, while Bristol De Mai was unsuited by the unseasonably dry ground.
Nevertheless, hopes would have been high among the Henry de Bromhead camp as they returned to Leopardstown to defend the Savills Chase title, only to be collared late on by Gordon Elliott’s Galvin.
There is no great shame in that defeat and A Plus Tard’s Festival form reads: 1st, 3rd, 2nd so he is still a safe bet to win the main prize in March.
The most dramatic market mover in the Gold Cup field, Galvin has shot into contention after that late surge under Davy Russell was enough to catch A Plus Tard at the line.
Many had expected Galvin to head down the Grand National route this season – he remains the 14/1 ante-post favourite for the Aintree showpiece – after winning the three-mile-and-six-furlong slog that is the National Hunt Chase at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival.
After a victorious return in mid-October at Grade Three level, Galvin first proved he could mix it with the best when chasing home Frodon in the Grade One Down Royal Champion Chase.
Elliott now has a serious Gold Cup hopeful and has responded by confirming that Galvin will be wrapped in cotton wool and head straight to the main event in March.
The defending champion was widely forgiven for his first start of the new season when finishing third behind Frodon and Galvin at Down Royal, but his latest effort has many now scratching their head.
De Bromhead said his eight-year-old, who also won at the Festival in 2019 before finish second in 2020, returned from Kempton “shook”, having quickly weakened out of contention and eventually pulled up by Rachael Blackmore.
It will have made for worrying viewing for those who have backed Minella Indo to repeat his Gold Cup heroics as De Bromhead and the team now have to regroup and reassess their options.
The statisticians will say 2019 and 2020 champion Al Boum Photo simply can not win the 2022 Gold Cup.
For a start, Kauto Star is the only horse in the race’s 97-year history to relinquish the title, before winning it back a year later. You also must go back to Cool Dawn in 1998 for the last 10-year-old winner.
Willie Mullins’ star will be celebrating that exact birthday as he returns to the track for the Savills New Year’s Day Chase at Tramore, a contest he has won three years in a row as the one and only stop en route to Cheltenham.
This season’s performance, more so than any other, will go a long way to telling fans how much life is left in Al Boum Photo’s legs.
Very much the new kid on the block, Tornado Flyer really shook things up with a surprise 28/1 victory in the King George for Willie Mullins.
Having been well beaten on his only previous start over three miles in the 2020 Savills Chase, it is easy to see why so many overlooked the eight-year-old at Kempton.
A string of nine runs without a victory had preceded his Grade One success, which came courtesy of a fine Danny Mullins ride from the back of the field.
Similar hold-up tactics have worked in past Gold Cups with the likes of Synchronised and Lord Windermere but it would be a huge ask for Tornado Flyer to repeat the feat at Cheltenham.
Leading the British challenge in the Gold Cup looks set to be Dan Skelton’s Protektorat who rather burst into the picture with a runaway success in the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree in December.
At just six-years-old and as a second-season chaser, he looks to have the most room for improvement, but would need just that to compete with the established talent on offer.
John Hales, who owns the horse in partnership with Sir Alex Ferguson, has long dreamed of Gold Cup glory and made no secret of their aim after victory at Aintree.
Perhaps the biggest enigma of them all, Champ undoubtedly has the ability to win a Gold Cup, as he showed when making a brilliant winning return in the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in December.
Nicky Henderson’s nine-year-old, named after legendary rider AP McCoy, produced the most remarkable finishing burst to beat Minella Indo and Allaho – both subsequent Festival winners – in the 2020 RSA Novices’ Chase, but things just did not go to plan last season.
A rushed, and frankly bizarre, preparation for last year’s Gold Cup was followed by a series of poor jumps in the race itself, which Henderson later put down to back issues, leading to surgery.
Having proved his wellbeing, stamina and engine are all very much intact, the question now for Champ is where will he end up in March? The Stayers Hurdle route may well prove too tempting, but connections say “all options are open”.