Having begun Thursday being very wary of Willie Mullins-trained runners, punters were so enthused about his prospects in the evening that his Djakadam moved clear at the top of the betting for Friday’s Cheltenham Gold Cup. But Mullins’s wait for a first success in the great race may be extended by at least a year because Minella Rocco (3.30) makes a lot of appeal at odds of 20-1.
As far back as the spring of 2015, when Minella Rocco was a novice hurdler, his trainer, Jonjo O’Neill, was fielding jocular questions about who would ride him in the 2017 Gold Cup, AP McCoy having just announced his intention to retire. Given the ability the horse was showing at the time, it is quite a surprise that he has won only one race since, but that win came at the last Festival and it would be a surprise to no one if O’Neill had brought him back to a peak in time for this week.
He had Native River behind him when landing the four-miler a year ago, with other subsequent winners such as Vicente and Vieux Lion Rouge further back. It is a rock-solid piece of form and he again ran well here on his reappearance under a big weight in a handicap. First-time cheekpieces should assist his concentration.
Djakadam will surely run his usual solid race, though there must be a great risk that he will find something too quick for the third time. Cue Card could well be that something, though the poor form of his stable is a concern for a horse that has been on the go since October.
1.30 Having strung together an unbeaten run of six, taking in races on a wide variety of ground types, Defi Du Seuil looks hard to beat here. Master Blueyes is going the right way and is respected. Charli Parcs’s chance will surely be compromised on this ground if he loses his place at halfway, as he has been doing.
2.10 The County Hurdle was named as the target when Mick Jazz won his most recent race at Punchestown, beating an odds-on shot from the Willie Mullins yard that was fifth in the Supreme. The six-year-old seems to have blossomed since joining Gordon Elliott last summer and being fitted with a hood. A winner on a sound surface in October, he still looks handicapped to win.
2.50 Following his Champion Chase success with Special Tiara, Henry de Bromhead’s week could get better in this Grade One with Monalee, who seemed to relish the step up to this marathon distance when scoring at Clonmel last month. He also promises to be much better suited by this ground than the mud he has been ploughing through all winter and that could help him turn round Navan form with Death Duty, likely to start favourite.
4.10 There is a lot to be said for going with the horse with a habit of winning at the Festival, as backers of Cause Of Causes proved on Wednesday. On The Fringe has won this for the past two years and will be sharper for his fine recent second to Foxrock. He is to be ridden by Jamie Codd, twice a winner this week.
4.50 Elliott could be in line for another handicap hurdle success with Runfordave, an easy winner at Clonmel last time. With five winners already this month his jockey, Donagh Meyler, must be about the most in-form of these conditional riders.
5.30 The Festival’s final race could fall to Dandridge, beaten only by a 25-1 shocker in the same contest last year. The chestnut appears to have been aimed at this all season and will doubtless get another canny waiting ride from Davy Russell.
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