Cheltenham: Many Clouds could provide a silver lining at Gold Cup
It is time for another changing of the guard in this afternoon's Cheltenham Gold Cup, with Many Clouds at the forefront of the new troop.
The field can be split into two groups: those who dominated the finish of last year's contest, including the winner Lord Windermere and today's favourite Silviniaco Conti, and the fresher faces running in the race for the first time.
Most of the newcomers are second season chasers, while the front-runner Coneygree is attempting to become the first novice to win the race since Captain Christy in 1974 and will at least ensure a proper test of stamina.
This should not faze Many Clouds (3.20 Cheltenham), who demonstrated his staying power, as well as his class, when winning the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in the autumn and again when holding off Smad Place here in January.
Holywell, a winner at the last two Festivals, and a formidable Irish trio comprising the hugely improved Road To Riches, Tony McCoy's mount Carlingford Lough and Djakadam, much fancied by his trainer to end Willie Mullins' week on the same high note he struck from the start, are other newcomers to the race with sound claims.
But Smad Place may be the surprise packet. Placed in two World Hurdles before being just touched off in last year's RSA Chase, Alan King's grey has again shown improvement this season and another peak performance should again get him into the mix.
Silviniaco Conti's fall at the tricky third-last fence in the 2013 Gold Cup can be excused, but he simply did not get up the final hill last year after jumping the last in front. He is a strong favourite after his commanding victory in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, but that was basically against a field of non-stayers.
Peace and Co is rightly favourite for the Triumph Hurdle after making such a good impression over the winter, but Devilment (1.30) has also looked a very smart young recruit while winning two minor events without coming off the bridle. At around 20-1 he makes considerable each-way appeal.
In the County Hurdle, Quick Jack (2.05), not seen out since finishing a close third on the Flat in the Cesarewitch in October, is sure to be primed for this big day by his trainer, Tony Martin.
Mullins will probably have a final-day say with Black Hercules (2.40), one of five stable runners in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle. The trainer has also highlighted the chances of McKinley (4.40) in the Martin Pipe Hurdle.
In the closing race named in honour of Tony McCoy, Ned Buntline, runner-up in the contest last year, would probably have been favourite even without the soon-to-retire champion on board.
But Eastlake (5.15), also owned by J P McManus, so a horse McCoy could have ridden, may spoil the party after showing signs of a return to his best at Ascot last time.