Five key questions ahead of the Greatwood Gold Cup

San Benedeto bids for back-to-back wins in the Greatwood Gold Cup
San Benedeto bids for back-to-back wins in the Greatwood Gold Cup

Alex Stearn discusses the weekend action and picks out five key talking points which include the Greatwood Gold Cup and a potential Grand National contender running on Saturday..

Who can dethrone Nicholls? 

Since it’s addition to the programme book back in 2004, the Greatwood Gold Cup has been a race that Paul Nicholls has made his own. From the 15 runnings to date, he has been successful in nine of those and saddles San Benedeto in a repeat bid, but his three runners in this year’s renewal will all have questions to answer. 

San Benedeto is challenging for favouritism after two respectable efforts this campaign, with the latest being over this C&D, seeing him finish fourth behind Oldgrangewood. That form has turned out to be strong with his conqueror going close at Cheltenham since. However, he is having to come into this year’s renewal off the back of an extended break and whilst that can be a good thing for some, it’s never done him much good and his performances haven’t quite been of the same level as when he is race fit - with the addition of forecast soft ground in the equation as well, it leaves him vulnerable. 

Nicholls’ other pair, Secret Investor and Mont Des Avaloirs are difficult to split but can both come up short for win purposes. The latter looks to be the first choice on jockey bookings with Bryony Frost taking the ride on Mont Des Avaloirs on his first venture outside of novice company over fences. The form of his fourth behind Champ over C&D would make him thrown in off a mark of 143 but his latest start would need improving on plenty to take a hand. 

Also, there’s no doubting that Secret Investor has the ability to make his presence felt at this level, the question is whether top weight will put an end to his chances. This will be his first attempt at handicaps in his career but he’s been kept to a sound surface for most of that and the forecast ground will be an issue, paving the way for another trainer to get their name of the roll of honour. 

Tom George has his string in fine form at the minute – operating at a near 30% strike rate - and Clondaw Castle can be the spoiler of Nicholls’ party. The son of Oscar lowered the flag of the well-fancied Two Taffs at Warwick on his latest start and whilst he is raised 6 lb for that success, it did look very comfortable and he could have plenty more to come, especially owing to the fact that he finished last season with respectable efforts at Grade 1 company, making him the one that I would side with.

A matter of how far? 

Cill Anna will make the cross-country journey from her Ditcheat base to Doncaster on Saturday and she looks to be a class above the rest of the field in the Listed Mares Novices' Hurdle at 3.00pm. The Stewart Family-owned mare hailed from the point-to-point sphere and off the back of just one successful start, fetched £115,000 at the sales. 

She didn’t cut much ice in bumpers where she seemed to lack the speed needed for those contests but connections weren’t shy in what they thought of her, sending her to Aintree and Cheltenham for those engagements with the second coming in listed company. This daughter of Imperial Monarch soon stepped up in trip for her debut over obstacles and after being beaten on debut where match practice over hurdles seemed to tell, she soon stepped forward on that form in both her subsequent starts.

Both of those saw her lower the flag of short-priced favourites and after having Emma Joy’s, who has since been impressive in Listed company, behind her at Warwick she can add her own black-type to her pedigree. She has plenty in hand on official ratings compared to the rest of the field and although she won’t be much of a punting price, I’d be shocked if anything can lay a glove on her, with it likely that it will be double-figure lengths between her and the rest.

Will this be a public schooling session for Definitly Red? 

Brian Ellison has been careful in his handling of Definitly Red this campaign to make sure that he gets to Liverpool in top form. He has double declared his Grand National contender but made Kelso his first preference. Often seen as one of the key trials for April, it has attracted a disappointing field of five with only Definitly Red and Saint Xavier holding entries in the Grand National. 

This has all the makings of a match race in all but name on paper but realistically, it is more likely to be a racecourse schooling session for Ellison’s charge. He did have the option of heading to Doncaster for the Grimthorpe Chase but was weary of giving him too hard of a race with only five weeks until the big day. Victory isn’t guaranteed as Saint Xavier has the class to get involved switched back to fences, but I don’t think the result will be that important to connections of Definitly Red – as long as he gets round safely whilst bringing himself forward fitness-wise, they’ll consider themselves the winner with all roads leading to Liverpool. 

A fruitless trip for Sam Twiston-Davies? 

Sam Twiston-Davies isn’t employed by his Dad, Nigel, on Saturday and therefore has found himself with a pair of rides for old boss Paul Nicholls and will be hoping that the near 12-hour round trip up to Kelso will yield a winner to make the journey all the more tolerable.

First up is Moabit in the novices' handicap chase at 2.12pm. He hasn’t achieved the same levels over fences that he did over hurdles but is only having his second start in this sphere and might now get competitive off a mark of 123. His chase debut came at Plumpton nearly three-weeks ago and can only improve for that experience. He raced too keen early on before then struggling to keep up as the race quickened but did stick to his task to finish third. This sharper test will probably suit based on that run but is that enough to see off Albert’s Back or Dali Mail? I don’t think so.

Twiston-Davies won’t have to wait long for his next ride though and will get the leg up on Calva d’Auge for the same connections in the Grade 2 novices' hurdle. He was last seen on the same day at Plumpton as Moabit but had a better result – seeing off the useful Fraser Island in minor company. This is obviously a big step up in class but his rating of 139 suggests that this contest could be within his scope. However, he does have to give weight to Clondaw Caitlin, who looks as if she can pose the biggest threat. She boasts an unbeaten record over timber to date without having to really show the ceiling of her ability – making it possible she can spoil the afternoon for Sam Twiston-Davies. 

Surely this is the day for Singlefarmpayment? 

It’s hard not to develop favourites in this game and whilst the lights of Altior and Native River are top of plenty of people’s lists for obvious reasons – Singlefarmpayment is one of my absolute favourites despite being responsible for plenty of losing wagers – the most agonising being the short head defeat in the Ultima Handicap Chase back in 2017.  He always seems to run his race and when he returned to Cheltenham in the middle of December 2019, I was confident that he would finally get a second win on the board for Tom George and when he travelled into the straight still cruising it looked as if being a formality. However, he didn’t go through with his effort and was another case of so near yet so far. 

The hooded hero Singlefarmpayment heads to Newbury on Saturday and makes his debut in the veterans series. The trip, track and going will be ideal for this gelding and with it being a slight drop in grade, he definitely has the ability to play a part in the finish on Saturday. The likes of Horatio Hornblower and Theatre Guide look like posing the most serious challenge, with the second a tough sort if getting in a battle, but without sounding like a broken record, Saturday is the day for Singlefarmpayment…surely?!

The Cheltenham Festival
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