The way some people are viewing the race, you could be forgiven for assuming that only the logistical trifle of accommodating 60,000 spectators need prevent the transfer of the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup to Paul Nicholls's gallops. The champion trainer saddled the first three in last year's race, and brings the same animals back to Cheltenham a fortnight tomorrow as the first three in the betting. But his rivals know that steeplechasing remains the least predictable of sports, and yesterday two of them confirmed their intention to take on Kauto Star, Denman and Neptune Collonges, rather than seek sanctuary in the Ryanair Chase.
Jonjo O'Neill now expects Exotic Dancer to join Albertas Run in the Gold Cup, while Nicky Henderson has persuaded the monarch herself to go for the race with Barbers Shop. "We've discussed it, and decided we're going to run," Henderson said yesterday, before offering a comical grimace. "And my neck's on the block."
Second in a handicap at the Festival last year, Barbers Shop has been very sparingly campaigned this time round and has not been seen since beating a small field at Sandown in December. But Henderson, at Cheltenham for the publication of the Festival handicap weights, was sounding conspicuously positive.
"He could have come here for the Cotswold Chase, for instance, but with the ground the way it was I didn't want him to have a slog," he explained. "He's a very easy horse to flatten, and you just have to keep him on top of himself. All his good runs have been fresh ones.
"The step up to three miles at Sandown seemed to help him enormously. He did jump very well in the Paddy Power Gold Cup here, on his first run of the season, but in races like that round here they go with the gun to their head from flag-fall. At Sandown we saw a completely different horse – there was a rhythm, a roll, a balance. Everything was so smooth, he was in his gear. He stays, as he is bred to, and he's an upward horse at the moment. That's why he has got to have a crack at it."
Henderson had begun the day by working Binocular, among others, over the all-weather track at Kempton.
The Smurfit Champion Hurdle favourite has also been kept fresh since the turn of the year, and Tony McCoy dismounted to tell Henderson that the workout had really hit the spot after the recent freeze.
"The horse had a good blow," Henderson said. "He was the whole point of the exercise, really. He's a stuffy horse and needs plenty [of work]. We've not run him on purpose and could have done without 14 days locked up in the cupboard, so to speak." Zaynar, the JCB Triumph Hurdle favourite, worked rather lazily under Barry Geraghty and Henderson admitted that he had toyed with the idea of fitting him with blinkers. As for Barbers Shop, he will be among another party of workers at Newbury on Sunday morning.
With just 12 days to the start of the Festival, and the clerk of the course reserving the option of watering pending a forecast of rain early next week, O'Neill was meanwhile delighted by the state of the course after a dry fortnight. The officially going is now good to soft, good in places, and O'Neill is confident that Albertas Run – winner of the RSA Chase at the Festival last year – will prove a different proposition compared with his recent toils in the Kempton mud.
"The way the ground is drying out, and this track suiting him so much better, I think he has a great each-way chance," O'Neill said. "While he doesn't always put his best foot forward in bad ground, if you catch him right he's a pretty good horse, and he's working very well."
Exotic Dancer, a horse that tends to show "amber" more often than "green", is also delighting O'Neill. "I would imagine he'll run in the Gold Cup rather than the Ryanair," he said.
"If it came up real heavy ground, we might have a rethink, but he's very fresh and well and I'll be very happy if we can keep him the way he is now for the next couple of weeks. He has had a great preparation – everything's gone right."
CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP (13 March, Totesport ante-post odds): 15-8 Kauto Star; 5-1 Denman and Neptune Collonges; 6-1 Madison Du Berlais; 10-1 Exotic Dancer; 16-1 Barbers Shop; 20-1 Albertas Run; 25-1 Star De Mohaison and Notre Pere; 28-1 Air Force One; 33-1 War Of Attrition and Imperial Commander; 40-1 Halcon Genelardais; 66-1 and upwards others
* Cheltenham's managing director Edward Gillespie yesterday poured cold water on a prediction from the Racecourse Association chairman, David Thorpe, that sponsorship could fall by 40 per cent in 2009. Gillespie said he was "wary" of such figures, and believes the home of National Hunt racing is standing up well against the turbulent economic situation. He commented: "I don't recognise the figure from David Thorpe on a potential drop and I am wary of people putting out those figures."