The Paddy Power Gold Cup (2.35pm, Cheltenham, Saturday) is the first major handicap of the National Hunt season and the highlight of the three-day Open Meeting at Prestbury Park.
The Pipe yard has already won the race nine times and David Pipe saddles another live contender, Grands Crus, this year.
Grands Crus (9/4) has been favourite for this race since the weights were published, but has been backed as if defeat was out of the question in the last week. David Pipe’s seven-year-old only had to be pushed out to beat Paul Nicholls’ Silviniaco Conti by 2¼ lengths, at level weights, in the Grade 1 Feltham Novices’ Chase at Kempton Park last Boxing Day. Silviniaco Conti was an impressive winner of the Grade 2 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby two weeks, off a handicap mark of 156, so Grands Crus looks well handicapped off a mark of 157.
Of course, he has an absence of 248 days to overcome and must put the disappointment of his one poor run last season behind him. That was when only fourth in the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. But if he turns up fit and ready to do himself justice he appeals as one of the more likely winners.
Grands Crus is not the only horse to have been heavily backed, or whose connections have been making encouraging noises, in the week leading up to the Paddy Power Gold Cup. Attention-seeker Anthony Knott, owner of second favourite Hunt Ball (11/2), has already made some typically colourful comments including: “I can’t see anything getting near him on his first two runs of the season [the Paddy Power Gold Cup and the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day]. We think he is a stone better than last year.”
Hunt Ball went up from an initial handicap mark of 69 to a final mark of 154 in winning seven of his nine starts over fences last season and is another 3lb higher here. As a seven-year-old, he may well have more improvement in him, but he’s also been off the course for 219 days. His owner’s comments may need to be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt.
Paul Nicholls’ confirmed his Al Ferof (15/2) as a definite runner after a satisfactory piece of work on Sunday morning. Al Ferof’s form rather tailed off in the second half of last season, but a return to the form that saw him beat For Non Stop by a neck, at level weights, in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown last December would give him every chance.
Indeed, For Non Stop now has an official BHA rating of 162, but Al Ferof can race here off 159 so he, too, is arguably well handicapped. Paul Nicholls has confirmed that his charge goes best fresh and Ruby Walsh, who’s ridden him to all three of his victories over fences, again takes the ride.
Wiltshire trainer Alan King has also suggested that his Walkon (9/1) is best caught first time out and, perhaps surprisingly, that the former multiple Grade 1 winner over hurdles is his best chance ever of winning the Paddy Power Gold Cup. Indeed, the way in which Walkon beat subsequent Grade 2 winner Zaynar on his seasonal debut atExeter last December suggests that his trainer has a point. Walkon is 5lb lower in the weights than when pulled up in the Scottish Grand National at Ayr on his last start in April, but still has too many questions to answer to represent value at his current odds.
Paddy Power Gold Cup Betting Tips Verdict
The first four in the betting have all been well backed, but all are returning from lengthy absences, which makes life difficult for punters. However, Paul Nicholls can do little wrong at present and has few peers when it comes to preparing a horse first time out. So our advice and tip is to back AL FEROF each-way at best betting odds of 8/1 with William Hill. It is half a point less at 15/2 with BetVictor, Blue Square or the sponsors Paddy Power.