The scene is set for a wide-open Cheltenham Gold Cup this year with Al Boum Photo bidding to retain his crown.

No horse has managed to do so since Best Mate completed his hat-trick of wins from 2002 to 2004. 2018 winner Native River will try to emulate Kauto Star who won in 2007, was beaten the following year but returned to win a second Gold Cup in 2009.

Al Boum Photo follows identical path to Cheltenham Gold Cup

Willie Mullins has understandably decided to follow the same path for Al Boum Photo as he did in 2018-19. He won the Savills Chase at Tramore after a 245-day absence and goes to Cheltenham fresh for his title defence. He started at 12-1 last year but stormed to the front on the home turn before going on to win by two and a half lengths.

Bristol De Mai, Native River and Clan Des Obeaux finished third, fourth and fifth with favourite Presenting Percy a remote eighth. All four are likely to renew rivalry this year but Al Boum Photo sets the standard. With five wins from ten starts over fences, the eight-year-old still has scope for improvement and heads the betting market at around 4-1.

Bristol De Mai has been beaten by Lostinstranslation (Betfair Chase) and Santini (Cotswold Chase) where he attempted to make all the running. He was ridden more patiently last year and was able to get some cover in a big field. Native River has enjoyed a couple of routine victories in Grade 2 chases at Aintree and Newbury this season and is still running in the 2020 Grand National. A decision on that race rests with his owners but he has nearly 10 lengths to find on last year’s Gold Cup form.

Presenting Percy has each-way claims

Two-time King George VI Chase winner Clan Des Obeaux would appear to be generously priced at around 8-1 but his stamina remains unproven. He was very impressive at Kempton but did not seem to relish the Cheltenham hill last year and was running on empty in the closing stages. His challenge is likely to be delayed for as long as possible but there are no hiding places at Cheltenham.

Presenting Percy did have excuses last year when finishing lame after only one run over hurdles during the previous 12 months. He has had three runs in Grade 1 chases this season, most recently finishing third to Delta Work in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. He showed his best form when held up over hurdles and he got to the front too early at Leopardstown. It was certainly an encouraging run and he looks a tempting each-way bet at around 12-1.

Delta Work was a shade unlucky when third to Topofthegame and Santini in last season’s RSA Chase. He has won three of his four subsequent races and it is difficult to find fault with his length and a half victory over Kemboy last time. Gordon Elliott won this race with Don Cossack (2016) and is very hopeful he can repeat the performance with Delta Work.

Santini still has plenty to prove

Nicky Henderson’s Santini is vying for favouritism with several bookmakers, despite making hard work of beating Bristol De Mai. That was his first race since wind surgery in November and Nico de Boinville had to earn his riding fee that day. Santini is closely matched with Delta Work on RSA Chase form but will need to be a lot sharper than he was last time.

There are also question marks over Lostinstranslation, pulled up in the King George on Boxing Day. He had been promoted to ante-post favourite for the Gold Cup following his impressive win in the Betfair Chase but was pulled up at Kempton. A breathing problem was diagnosed and he has not raced since.

Monalee looks the best of the outsiders, beaten only a head by Delta Work in December but currently priced at 25-1. He was no match for Presenting here as a novice and found the Ryanair Chase too short for him last year. The Cheltenham Festival runs from 10th to 13th March with the first five races televised live on ITV each day.

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