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Cheltenham - Racing: Blackmore hoping for A-Plus in the Gold Cup

Reigning champion Minella Indo will face 10 rivals when he seeks to retain his crown in the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday afternoon.

It's the main dish of the entire week in the Cotswolds and the Cheltenham Gold Cup rarely disappoints.

Henry De Bromhead scored a one-two with Minella Indo and A Plus Tard 12 months ago and the Irish trainer has shown already this week that he's in no mood to relinquish the major prizes he snared last March.

Dual winner Al Boum Photo is bidding to regain the Blue Riband and joins Willie Mullins-trained stablemates Asterion Forlonge and Tornado Flyer, while Britain's challenge includes Dan Skelton's Protektorat, Chantry House for Nicky Henderson and the Venetia Williams-trained Royale Pagaille.

Here's our look ahead to the most coveted race in the jumps calendar after the final field of 11 were declared, with all the action set to be on the Sports Live Streaming service.

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Minella returning to form on time

Minella Indo is 9/2 to hold onto his crown and appears to be finding his groove again coming to this favoured venue.

He is two-from-three in previous starts at The Festival, his only setback coming when Champ produced an almighty late rally in 2020 to win the RSA Chase after Minella Indo probably thought he'd done enough in getting the upper hand on Allaho when charging up the hill.

Champ came from a mile back that day to deny the pair under an inspired Barry Geraghty.

The Albert Bartlett winner in 2019, Minella Indo took the running up a good way from home in this race last year and refused to be worn down by stablemate A Plus Tard, try as Rachael Blackmore did to get past Jack Kennedy up the hill.

Minella Indo was behind Frodon and Galvin at Down Royal in October's comeback, while his King George run on Boxing Day is best forgotten as the ferocious early pace he contested with Frodon saw them both empty out.

Last month's Irish Gold Cup second behind Conflated was deemed a perfect prep-run by De Bromhead and gave Robbie Power a chance to get to know the horse.

He retains the ride and Minella Indo routinely brings his A-game to Cheltenham, ensuring he's got strong claims of becoming the fourth multiple Gold Cup winner this century.

Blackmore sticks with A Plus Tard

Not much went against Blackmore last March – and she made quite the start again here on Tuesday in retaining the Champion Hurdle on Honeysuckle – but the Gold Cup was certainly 'the one that got away' in 2021.

An historic leading rider award was hers after six wins, but it could have been seven as she had the choice of the De Bromhead-trained Gold Cup one-two and sided with A Plus Tard ahead of Minella Indo.

She made the decision early this season to stick with the Cheveley Park Stud-owned runner again and they are 3/1 to go one spot better.

A Plus Tard beat Royale Pagaille by a wide margin in winning the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November's comeback and his only start since yielded a short-head defeat to Galvin in the Savills Chase at Christmas.

Blackmore would likely play her hand differently if given time again in that race as Davy Russell picked her pocket on the line.

The pace was lacking midrace and Blackmore and A Plus Tard went forward from the third last fence when perhaps sitting tight for a while longer might have brought a different outcome.

They'll surely go close again in this race, with old foe Galvin 3/1 to add a second successive Festival win having landed the National Hunt Chase a year ago. He's the only runner for Gordon Elliott in the race and has the wily Russell on board, a real asset here.

Both eight-year-olds, A Plus Tard and Galvin are amongst the more likely winners, though the former may just possess that bit more class if Blackmore can time it right.

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Can Protektorat cut it in this grade?

Dan and Harry Skelton will be hoping 7/1 Protektorat is going to feature for them. He won the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree in December by 25 lengths and remains unexposed as a staying chaser.

He beat former Gold Cup hero Native River that afternoon but Colin Tizzard's charge was retired soon after, while only one other finisher trailed home behind them – Sam Brown – who is rated sub-150 and chased home Royale Pagaille next time in the Peter Marsh at Haydock when getting more than a stone in weight.

This is going to be a much more demanding test for Protektorat. He's won four of seven starts over fences but this race might be coming a year too soon for him.

Royale Pagaille tried this as a seven-year-old last year and was easily beaten off. He's that year wiser now but surely Venetia Williams' 16/1 chance will need some rain to hit the Cotswolds if he's to shine.

The Mullins challenge

After this race eluded him for so long, Gold Cups were indeed like buses for Festival maestro Willie Mullins when Al Boum Photo won back-to-back renewals in 2019 and 2020.

He was third last year and history is against him regaining the crown at odds of 9/1 now. Only Kauto Star has won this race, lost it, and then won it again in the long history of the Gold Cup.

Meanwhile, Cool Dawn in 1998 is the most recent of just two 10-year-olds to win the race since the great Desert Orchid did it in 1989. Cheekpieces are added now to try and get Al Boum Photo to produce one more heroic effort but the sands of time are against him.

Stablemate Tornado Flyer took advantage of a pace collapse to win the King George in December under Danny Mullins and they are 10/1 facing into this very different test over two furlongs extra. It's a step into the unknown but they weren't stopping at the line in that Kempton win, albeit this track is an altogether different equation.

Asterion Forlonge was set for second at Kempton when he fell at the last. He attracted a wave of market support for the Irish Gold Cup last time out but was no better than fourth and trades at 16/1 here.

Henderson looking for a House party

Santini was second in this race for Nicky Henderson when Al Boum Photo won in 2020, with just a neck between them. He left Seven Barrows last summer and didn't shape badly on his second run for Polly Gundry in the Grade 2 Cotswold Chase here on Trials Day in January (3m½f, good).

He's 50/1 and it would be remarkable if he proved the answer now, while Aye Right is 66/1 having finished third that day.

Chantry House beat the pair of them that afternoon and is 16/1 for Henderson and Nico de Boinville. The first-time cheekpieces had a positive effect on Trials Day and Chantry House is another for whom the King George at Christmas is a race to simply forget.

He was placed in the Supreme here in 2020 and last year he won the Marsh (now Turners) over 2m4f in the wake of Envoi Allen's fall early on. He again excelled in Aintree's Mildmay Novices' Chase afterwards when tackling a trip in excess of three miles for the first time.

If willing to forgive the King George run, where he was never fluent and uncomfortable going at a helter-skelter pace on that flat track, his form remains progressive and he might be the British value call in a race where the Irish have a stacked hand.

He does, though, need to improve again to take down an in-form A Plus Tard, with last year's second having just about the best chance on what we have seen this season.

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