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Cheltenham Festival 2016: Classy Card right on Cue to strike Gold

By Richard Forristal

Don Cossack spearheads a strong Irish assault on the Timico Gold Cup as the Cheltenham Festival is poised to reach an enthralling climax but this is set to be Cue Card's day.

Gordon Elliott's Cossack shades the market lead for the sport's pinnacle event, a status copperfastened by Bryan Cooper's decision to partner him over Don Poli.

For all that the decent ground might have made that call inevitable, Cooper won't have found it easy to eschew Don Poli.

In a way, they are polar opposite contenders. Don Cossack's record in Prestbury Park's cauldron of intensity comprises a fall and an unsatisfactory third in the Ryanair Chase.

He also fell when challenging in the King George VI Chase but he is a horse that has the capacity to blow away high-class opposition.

That isn't Don Poli's style, yet he is a dual Festival winner. You can crab the specifics of his form all you like, but a penchant for doing enough is a fine attribute to have in your armoury.

It is also an undoubted plus to have Davy Russell up. Successful in the £575,000 Grade One in 2014 on Lord Windermere, he is one of the truly great big-race riders of our time.

Were he to triumph in the colours of his old Gigginstown Stud employers for Willie Mullins, it would be somewhat ironic.

Remember, three years ago a spontaneously punctured lung deprived him of the mount aboard Sir Des Champs for the same team.

Ulster great AP McCoy would eventually finish second on the spare, but there is an element of unfinished business about Russell delivering in this for Michael O'Leary.

Of course, a similar theme applies to Mullins, who has saddled the Gold Cup runner-up on five occasions.

Last year it was Djakadam that hit the crossbar as a mere five-year-old, and he is Rich Ricci's chosen one again today.

With Ruby Walsh up, he should have a big say once again, while the artificial watering is of benefit to him.

Still, for all of the romance surrounding the similar path taken by him to the one that Dawn Run traversed 30 years ago, triumphing here on the back of a fall will take some doing.

Again, though, in Walsh he has an accomplice with a gift from the gods, and how the Festival's winning-most rider would love to plunder this for his greatest supporter.

Of the locals, Cue Card will bid for a £1m hat-trick bonus - the Betfair Chase and King George are already in the bag - under Galway native Paddy Brennan.

It will be an epic encounter.The heart craves an Irish victory but the head says Cue Card.

Once the noise has abated following the Gold Cup, the focus will be on Victoria Pendleton on Pacha Du Polder in the Foxhunters.

This time last year she had not even sat on a horse but has embraced her 'switching saddles' campaign - McCoy has been on hand as a mentor - in the manner befitting a dual Olympic cycling champion.

Pendleton said: "I'm excited more than anything."

There is strong Ulster interest, with the fancied Marito - trained in Crossgar by Colin McBratney and ridden by Newry's Noel McParlan - going for glory.

Belfast Telegraph

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