Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup: Defending champ A Plus Tard has a point to prove
A Plus Tard was nothing short of sensational in winning last year's Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup - but returns with a point to prove.
Runner-up to stablemate Minella Indo two years ago, the Cheveley Park Stud-owned gelding turned the tables with a stunning 15-length success under the history-making Rachael Blackmore 12 months ago.
Few would have believed then A Plus Tard would be a relatively big price to successfully defend his crown, but that is the case following a disappointing season thus far.
The nine-year-old stopped to a walk when pulled up in his bid for back-to-back Betfair Chase wins at Haydock in November - and with a minor knock ruling him out of an intended outing at Leopardstown over Christmas, he has not been seen since that listless display.
However, trainer Henry de Bromhead has been making positive noises regarding A Plus Tard's well-being in recent weeks and Cheveley Park director Richard Thompson is hopeful he can bounce back to his brilliant best.
"I saw Henry on Wednesday morning and all is in good shape. His horses have been running well this week, which is a good sign, and we're looking forward to it," he said.
"We know the prep has been difficult with him - he hasn't finished a race since the Gold Cup last year.
"It could go either way, couldn't it? He's either going to be bang there in the mix or he's not.
"I think last year one was really hopeful. He was 100-30 and there wasn't really a doubt that he wouldn't run a big race, particularly after being second the year before.
"This year there is that doubt, so it's a different feeling going into it this year, but it's fantastic to be lining up in a great field with a previous winner of the race.
"Winning the Gold Cup is always the pinnacle and whatever happens this week we're already in bonus territory."
With his horses performing tremendously well this week, De Bromhead is excited to send both A Plus Tard and Minella Indo into battle once more.
"They are in good form so we'll just see how it goes," said the Knockeen-based trainer.
"Who knows what the ground will be we'll just have to see what happens on Friday. It should be fresher ground on the New course.
"It's incredible to be going into a Gold Cup with two horses who have already won it.
"They arrived at the track on Monday so they've nicely settled in so we'll just have to see how they get on now."
A formidable Irish challenge also includes Emmet Mullins-trained Grand National hero Noble Yeats, Gordon Elliott's Conflated and Shark Hanlon's stable star Hewick, plus the Willie Mullins-trained Galopin Des Champs and Stattler.
Noble Yeats was a staying-on third in the Cotswold Chase on Cheltenham Trials day in January and owner Robert Waley-Cohen, who won the 2011 Gold Cup with Long Run, is optimistic of a bold showing.
He said: "We're ready to rock and roll and we're looking forward to it.
"We know he stays and the acceleration he showed when winning the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree earlier in the season was very good.
"The ground is what it is - whatever it is it won't inconvenience him. I suppose if it's softer it will inconvenience some others, but we're not too worried about it.
"After seeing Honeysuckle win on Tuesday for Henry de Bromhead, the one we have to beat, in my opinion, is A Plus Tard. I know it will be almost his first run of the season, but the way he powered up the hill last year was so impressive."
Conflated won last season's Irish Gold Cup before falling in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham.
Having won the Savills Chase at Leopardstown this term, Elliott feels he more than merits his place in the Gold Cup field.
"He is in good form. I think I went for the wrong race last year as all he does is gallop. We're looking forward to running him in the Gold Cup," said the Cullentra handler.
"I think he'll love the trip. As a young horse he was a lunatic, but he's settling better every year. He's relaxed a lot more now and you can ride a race on him.
"I've only ever had one good enough to win a Gold Cup. Don Cossack was very good, but Conflated is a good horse.
"I think it's an open Gold Cup and I think he's got a chance. I think the trip will suit him, if I'm being honest - he looks made for it."
Hewick has enjoyed a fairytale rise in the past year, winning the bet365 Gold Cup, the Galway Plate and the American Grand National.
But Hanlon is praying conditions do not deteriorate too much ahead of the blue riband.
He said: "The horse is in great shape. He arrived late on Wednesday night, we rode him out this (Thursday) morning and we'll ride him out again tomorrow morning.
"He travelled very well and we couldn't be happier with him, but we don't want any more rain.
"We want to run the horse as there's only one Gold Cup, but if the ground goes too soft we'll have to think about it as Aintree (Grand National) is only four weeks away."
The leading hope for the home team is Bravemansgame, who provided trainer Paul Nicholls with a 13th win in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day and now looks to give him a fifth Gold Cup.
"He had one or two issues last year and is twice the horse now, so much bigger and stronger and bounds up our hill gallop three times in the morning," the Ditcheat handler told Betfair.
"He had a brilliant first half of the season, winning the King George in great style and the challenge has been to have him in the same form in the spring which hasn't always been the case.
"It helps that he is much more mature now and he looks fabulous at the moment. The key is whether he stays three and quarter miles. Who knows? I didn't know if Kauto Star would get the trip before he won his first Gold Cup and I'm not sure about Bravemansgame, but I suspect he will stay because he was keeping on strongly in the King George.
"I don't think I've ever had him in better shape and Harry Cobden is very confident."
The Dan Skelton-trained Protektorat was best of the British when third in last year's Gold Cup and was thoroughly impressive in winning the Betfair Chase in the autumn.
He could finish only fourth when hot favourite for the Cotswold Chase on his latest outing, but Skelton is adamant he is in better shape now than he was then.
Scottish hopes are carried by Ahoy Senor, who bids to provide Lucinda Russell with a second win at this year's Festival following Corach Rambler's Ultima Handicap Chase success on Tuesday.
He bounced back from an underwhelming start to his season by winning the Cotswold Chase and Russell's string could hardly be in better form.
Sounds Russian (Ruth Jefferson) was best of the rest in the Cotswold Chase and renews rivalry, with Royale Pagaille (Venetia Williams) and Eldorado Allen (Joe Tizzard) completing the line-up.