Last year's 1-2-3 in the Gold Cup return for Friday's feature, but it’s the improving Galvin who is edging favouritism on the eve of the big race.
Gordon Elliott’s charge was a winner at the Festival 12 months ago, but it came against less illustrious rivals in the Grade Two National Hunt Chase over a trip three and a half furlongs further than the Gold Cup distance.
That’s not to suggest Galvin is a plodder. It was speed rather than stamina that proved telling as he saw off Next Generation and Escaria Ten in the closing stages of a race run at a modest early gallop.
The son of Gold Well has continued on an upward trajectory this season, winning two of his three starts, and capturing the Savills Chase on his most recent outing at Leopardstown at Christmas.
The Gold Cup is a race that favours young, improving sorts and he has the ideal profile.
Next in the betting is last year’s runner-up A Plus Tard, who scored a breathtaking win in the Betfair Chase in a fast time on his seasonal reappearance at Haydock.
The worry for his supporters is that he did seem to get outstayed in his runner-up finishes in the Savills Chase and in last year’s Gold Cup behind stablemate Minella Indo.
It’s been a disappointing season for the defending champion thus far. Minella Indo's third-place finish behind Frodon and Galvin at Down Royal was just about satisfactory, but he was pulled up on his subsequent start on soft ground in the King George after forcing an unsustainable pace.
His second-place finish in the Irish Gold Cup at the Dublin Racing Festival last month was an improved effort, but he does need to progress significantly from that performance to score here.
Minella Indo was simply incredible!— CheltenhamRacecourse (@CheltenhamRaces) March 19, 2021
Henry de Bromhead becomes the first trainer to win the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and the @WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup at the same Festival#CheltenhamFestival pic.twitter.com/FdFpsMlwPq
The 2019 and 2020 Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo finished third in the race last season and there’s no obvious reason why he should reverse form with Minella Indo and A Plus Tard at the age of 10.
However, he has been raced sparingly in recent years and the Tramore-Cheltenham route has always seen him arrive at the Festival in top form.
Protektorat is the leading British challenger in the market and achieved a career best at Aintree last time out.
That’s a very different circuit to Cheltenham and Paul Nicholls' runner has undergone wind surgery in the past. He may be best suited to a flat track and his record at Cheltenham is a mixed one.
Danny Mullins produced one of the rides of the week on Thursday when he scored a second Stayers’ Hurdle success on Flooring Porter. The fast-pace scenario that many envisaged happening in that contest never materialised and the staying contest turned into one decided by a turn of foot, with Mullins getting the fractions just right on Gavin Cromwell’s winner.
Tornado Flyer is a shock winner of the Grade 1 @Ladbrokes King George VI Chase, blowing his rivals away in a dramatic renewal 🌪️— Kempton Park Racecourse (@kemptonparkrace) December 26, 2021
It's a second success in the race for trainer @WillieMullinsNH and a double on the card for @dan2231 👏
Asterion Forlonge is up and ok 👍 pic.twitter.com/IqE8nHjhzJ
Mullins also showed himself to be a fine judge of pace when he guided Tornado Flyer to a shock victory in the King George at Christmas under a very different ride in a race run at a brutal early gallop.
He’s likely to adopt waiting tactics once more, and his mount is unexposed at the trip, even if he was a little flattered by how that race at Kempton unfolded.
Training staying chasers is Venetia Williams’ forte and she’s the in-form trainer at the Festival having saddled two winners [9-4F, 40-1] and three placed runners [40-1, 6-1, 66-1] from just eight runners.
Her other two runners hardly let the side down either, with Christopher Wood sixth in the 23-runner Coral Cup at 40-1 and Brave Seasca an early faller in the Arkle before we had a chance to discover if he too could defy his starting price of 80-1.
She sends out Royale Pagaille here and he’s shortened in the betting due to Wednesday's deluge and the stable’s hot form.
Royale Pagaille’s form does indicate a preference for testing going, and given he’s owned by Rich Ricci, it’s odd that he’s not stabled in Ireland with Willie Mullins where he’d have more opportunities to contest valuable prizes on proper winter ground.
As the premier National Hunt track in Britain, Cheltenham has a top-notch drainage system. Evidence for that was provided on Thursday, where heavy ground became soft ground by racing’s resumption.
Friday will be another dry day at the track and we should see 'good' reappear somewhere in the going description by race time in the Gold Cup. That is likely to be against Royale Pagaille, as might this undulating circuit.
We can’t say for certain that he won’t act at Cheltenham as he’s almost exclusively been campaigned on flat tracks and he lost two shoes and finished lame when disappointing in the race last season.
Chantry House has stamina doubts to overcome, as does the talented but enigmatic Asterion Forlonge, who often threatens to win big races before falling.
Santini is likely too old, while Aye Right looks outclassed.
It's difficult to split the first three in the betting. Galvin brings the most convincing recent form into the race, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Henry de Bromhead has trained A Plus Tard and Minella Indo to the minute to peak at the Festival. At the prices, I’d have a slight preference for Minella Indo (11-2), just over Galvin, given his outstanding record at the Festival and the prospect of drying ground. Older horses have a poor record in this race, but Santini is of mild interest at 66-1 with some bookmakers paying four places on the race. He’s being aimed at the Grand National and was clearly unfit on his seasonal reappearance when beaten by 41 lengths, but he put in a much-improved effort last time out. He’s not the force of old, he can be rather mulish, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him pulled up. However, if he’s on his best behaviour, he could outrun those odds and snatch an unlikely place.