The nine-year-old fell three fences from home when still travelling well on his first attempt in 2013, while he looked a likely winner jumping the final obstacle in front last year before wandering across the track and eventually finishing fourth. He arrives as favourite for the race this time after a fine campaign that has seen him win two of his three starts, including a second King George VI Chase on his most recent outing on Boxing Day.
Silviniaco Conti galloped his rivals into submission that day, which Nicholls believes is indicative of his charge’s renewed zest.
“He made the running and galloped on really strongly,” said the Ditcheat handler. “Something he was not doing last year was finishing his races.
“We found out after he won at Aintree last year he was suffering badly with gastric ulcers and we are on top of that now. The cheekpieces have also got him jumping sharper. Hopefully this year he is much better and on form he is the one they have to beat and he deserves to be favourite.
“You have to stay to win a King George. Look at See More Business, he won a Gold Cup and Kauto was the same. I’ve got no doubt about him staying whatsoever.”
Nicholls also fields Sam Winner, who beat Tuesday’s Festival winner The Druids Nephew at Cheltenham earlier in the season and was last seen finishing third in the Lexus Chase behind the reopposing Road To Riches. The trainer said: “If you look at his form around Cheltenham he is not totally without a chance of finishing in the frame and he is a lively outsider.”
Djakadam burst on to the Gold Cup scene at a relatively late stage, booking his ticket with a comfortable eight-length triumph under top weight in the Thyestes Chase at the end of January.
He had previously disappointed when only eighth in the Hennessy at Newbury, while he crashed out at the fourth-last in last year’s JLT Novices’ Chase at the Festival. Trainer Willie Mullins said: “I don’t think jumping is going to be an issue any more than it will be for any other horse in the race.”
Owner Rich Ricci is sweet on his runner’s chance, but admits to having a slight doubt about him seeing out the extended three-and-a-quarter-mile trip. He said: “My only niggle at the back of my mind is, will he stay? If the Gold Cup was three miles I’d be leaning in and saying, ‘Wow, what a great chance we have’, but that last two and a half furlongs is so gruelling up the hill. It’s my only niggle. That being said, Willie loves the horse, Ruby loves the horse and he’s in great order.”
Mullins also runs last year’s second On His Own and Boston Bob.
Road To Riches has made fantastic strides after winning last year’s Galway Plate, bagging Grade One glory at Down Royal before going on to beat On His Own by a length and a half in the Lexus.
The eight-year-old has shown a preference for making all of the running in the past but Noel Meade is not sure that is the best plan of action at Cheltenham. He said: “I think they’ll go a good gallop – they always go a good gallop in the Gold Cup – and I’m sure Willie’s horse (On His Own) will try and make it again. If they do a good pace we’re not going to be up there trying to kill ourselves. It’s very hard to make all the running in the Gold Cup. I’m not sure if anyone has ever done it. We’ll be happy enough to take a lead. I think there’s not a lot between a lot of them. I think Paul Nicholls’ horse is the obvious one and he’s entitled to be favourite.”
Last year’s winner Lord Windermere has failed to shine since his short-head success, finishing third in the John Durkan Chase and seventh in the Lexus before showing a slight return to form for trainer Jim Culloty when third in the Irish Hennessy. Owner Dr Ronan Lambe said: “I suspect he might be the forgotten horse of the race because the lead-up to the race was better than last year. We are expecting a big run.”
Big-race jockey Davy Russell also believes his mount has every chance of regaining his best form. He said: “I genuinely wouldn’t swap him for anything, he’s a proper horse and loves Cheltenham. I know his form is not ideal, but he doesn’t really handle soft ground and he’s not in love with Leopardstown as there’s not enough jumping in the race.”
Bobs Worth is another former winner who is seeking a renaissance after finishing only fifth in his defence last year and eighth in the Lexus on his only start this term. Trainer Nicky Henderson said: “Bob has been there for three Festivals – that’s a tough thing to do. Of course he has had tough races. For what he lacks in talent he puts together with his heart and soul.”
The Giant Bolster has his fourth start in the race, having finished second, fourth and third for David Bridgwater.
He said: “It’s an open race and hopefully he’ll run as well as he has done the last three years. I hope they go very quick. That will suit us. I don’t think they will mess around. As long as we get competitive again I’ll be thrilled. He’s as good as he was last year, no doubt.”
Smad Place takes his chance, but Alan King is not sure the trip will suit. He said: “I am not convinced he is an out-and-out stayer.”