Anticipation of this meeting is largely rooted in hindsight. Year after year it proves a major crossroads, especially in the career of a young horse, on the road back to the Festival.
Any horse that runs with distinction at Cheltenham this weekend is entitled to return in March, its eligibility proven in terms of both the course and the level of competition. As such, it hardly enters the spirit of things to concentrate, in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, on a horse whose best days plainly seem to be behind him.
After all, eight of the last nine winners have been aged six or seven, and you have to go all the way back to 1975 to find one older than nine.
The market is duly dominated by progressive ex-novices – above all the hot favourite, Grands Crus, whose first campaign over fences proved so accomplished that connections were sorely tempted to fast-track him to the Gold Cup itself. It will seem somewhat perverse, then, to investigate the claims of a horse nearing his 11th birthday, and without a win to his name since March 2009.
Yet it is not just respect for the elderly that makes Forpadydeplasterer (2.35) of interest at 25-1. Throughout his career, the old boy has built up an extremely solid body of work at level weights in the very best company. He has never contested a single handicap. For him to drop in grade at last, and find just 10st 13lb on his back, is nearly as insulting as it may prove generous.
Last season, admittedly, he did not look quite himself. His jumping lacked its usual gusto, and he ended up wearing cheekpieces. But he shaped better on his return last month, chasing home the top class Sizing Europe, and he was then given a spin on the Flat to put him straight for today. Having spent so long fighting bare-knuckle – against elite steeplechasers in small fields, often on bad ground – he may well find his cushioned weight and naïve sparring partners provide a rather more congenial environment.
Needless to say, Grands Crus has a far more obvious chance – but the bookmakers have noticed as much, and he is a very short price for a horse with just four chases to his name, all in single-figure fields. This race has often found out similarly inexperienced types who arrived with a tempting handicap mark. All things being equal, mind, he is entitled to make his class tell.
Al Ferof and Walkon are other novices who could be ahead of the game, in differing degrees, having failed to see through a promising start last season, and the latter has a conspicuously good record when fresh. Neutrals will meanwhile be united in the hope that Hunt Ball can extend last season's incredible improvement for his small yard, but you could hardly bet on it after he has already soared 88lb. Perhaps Divers will prove better value, for a stable back in the groove.
Galaxy Rock shaped well at the first meeting here, in readiness for his defence of the Henrietta Knight Handicap Chase, but Harry The Viking (1.55) looked raw last season and could be ready to surpass this rating now.
Stonemaster (3.05) came storming up the hill when sixth in the Coral Cup at the Festival and ran his best race since at Naas the other day. He is bred to stay well and looks very interesting back over a longer trip in the Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Hurdle.
Ifandbutwhynot (3.40) has meanwhile made a good start for his new stable and looks on a decent mark for the Centaur Novices' Handicap Hurdle.
Sprinter Sacre will top the bill tomorrow, when he should enjoy an ideal pipe-opener on the final day of the meeting.
His trainer, Nicky Henderson, also saddles the first two in the betting on the valuable Racing Post Handicap Hurdle, in Darlan and Cash And Go, but a pair of Irish raiders, Domination and Cause Of Causes, stand out among those primed to catch them cold. On their home soil, meanwhile, only four convene for a Grade One hurdle at Punchestown – but these do include two of Ireland's very best hurdlers, Hurricane Fly and Go Native.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Menelik (6.20 Wolverhampton)
Aragorn Rouge (8.50 Wolverhampton)
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