Long Run silenced his doubters in last year's Gold Cup when surging seven lengths clear from Denman, but not everyone is convinced he can retain his crown.
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What happened 12 months ago?
Last year's Gold Cup was a truly epic contest with the lead changing hands several times and it was still any one of Long Run, Kauto Star and Denman three out. However, watch a repeat and it's clear that there was only going to be one winner jumping two out, where Long Run takes it up before extending his length lead at the last to seven at the line. That performance was all the more remarkable considering the catalogue of errors he produced on the way round, none of which can be classed as a mistake but they were costing him ground nonetheless. There were four lengths back to the third Kauto Star who, despite a rally approaching the last, was clearly running on empty close home and only narrowly held off his stablemate What A Friend in fourth. Back in fifth came Midnight Chase, while Weird Al was pulled up after breaking a blood vessel.
So is it a case of same again?
Far from it on the evidence of this season with Long Run seemingly taking a backward step and a rejuvenated Kauto Star looking as good as ever at the age of 12. They've clashed twice - the Betfair Chase at Haydock and the King George at Kempton - and the score stands at 2-0 in the older horses favour - both times Kauto dominated from the front and both times Long Run has made his customary errors before staying on. To be fair to the reigning champion, neither of those tracks would have suited him and the more demanding terrain of Cheltenham and an extra 2f to travel could well see him reverse those placings, and confirm the form of 12 months ago. But it's far from clear-cut as Kauto might be ridden with more restraint this time to help him see out the trip better and the fact he won't have Denman pressurising him at the top of the hill is in his favour too.
Can anything threaten the big two?
Burton Port is one of several horses to have thrown their hat into the ring by pushing Long Run so close at Newbury on his return from injury, albeit in receipt of 10lb. He does have the dreaded 'bounce factor' to overcome but he's some super-sub for trainer Nicky Henderson. Argento Chase winner Midnight Chase is back for another crack and while he has 19 lengths to find with Long Run, there are grounds for thinking he will finish closer this time with regular Dougie Costello back on - he never really jumped with his usual fluency 12 months ago under substitute Tom Scudamore. Weird Al has only two lengths to find with Long Run from the Betfair Chase and probably has more improvement in him after just eight starts over fences. The fact he hasn't run since Haydock is in his favour too as he's best fresh. Lexus Chase winner Synchronised would prefer softer ground but there is some rain forecast, which would also boost the chances of Hennessy Gold Cup winner Quel Esprit. Plenty of dangers then.
What's the verdict?
I've not been impressed with Long Run at all this season and while I think he will again outstay Kauto Star at Cheltenham, that doesn't necessarily mean he's going to win. Certainly, at the current odds of 15/8 he's no value and I can honestly see the winner coming from outside the big two, although like everyone else I'll be rooting for Kauto if he's got a semblance of a chance jumping the last. It pays not to be sentimental when it comes to betting, though, and the head says WEIRD AL will take this for his massively in-form trainer Donald McCain. His Betfair Chase third is encouragement enough for a bet and as that race came just three weeks after his run in the Charlie Hall, he might be capable of better still now he's been freshened up. I considered backing him without the big two at around 11/2 but as I genuinely think he can win the whole thing, I'm happy to take the 12/1 on offer in Ladbrokes' outright market, each-way of course.
Best bookmaker offer?
Back the winner of the Gold Cup at 4/1 or bigger with bet365 and they will give you a free bet to the same stake on the next race shown live on Channel 4 - the Foxhunter Chase (4.00).