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Cheltenham: It’ll be a right royal day for Master

For marketing purposes, it would be the least convenient of truths.

Here we all are, slavering over the fact that the past three runnings of the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup have been shared between horses from neighbouring stalls, and wondering how their latest duel will unfold on Friday.

Yet for a time there was a school of thought that neither Kauto Star nor Denman was necessarily the best in Ditcheat.

Not many would still own up to such a heresy, admittedly.

The reputations of Kauto Star and Master Minded have diverged somewhat since the 2008 Festival, when the former was beaten by Denman and the latter won the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

But the fact is that only one horse has done anything as visually astonishing in a top-class steeplechase in recent seasons, and that was Kauto Star himself, in winning his fourth King George VI Chase at Kempton this winter.

Master Minded, likewise, seemed to have the race sewn up with the best part of a mile to go — no mean feat, given that he was only racing over two miles, rather than over three like Kauto Star.

And while he was nothing like as dominant in following up last year, there was something unmistakably evocative of the 2008 Master Minded in his return from injury at Newbury last month.

Certainly, the race amounted to little more than a schooling session, and even that part of it nearly went wrong when he made that teeth-rattling blunder at the final fence.

He has become so reliable a jumper since entering Paul Nicholls' care that it is easy to forget how hopeless he was in his novice days.

Still, Nicholls tends to be thoroughly vindicated in the sort of diagnosis he has offered about Master Minded.

He suspects the horse was not quite right all last spring, including when scrambling home from Big Zeb at Punchestown, and is confident that he is now back to his formidable best.

That is just as well, because the competition today may prove the most searching of his career.

True, Big Zeb has proved unequal to the pressure on his jumping in both previous visits to these shores, including when closing four out in last year's race.

And Twist Magic, masterfully rejuvenated by Nicholls this winter, has a quite ghastly record at Cheltenham. But there is some fresh blood in this division, too.

Forpadydeplasterer, who just thwarted Kalahari King's storming finish here last year, has perhaps not kept pace with that one's improvement in the meantime, albeit he may have been running on unsuitable ground.

But Kalahari King put up an amazing performance when supposedly in need of the run at Doncaster last month, outclassing a competitive handicap field under a big weight in bad ground.

His trainer, Ferdy Murphy, is a skilled “target” trainer and this horse looks the perfect each-way alternative to Master Minded (3.20).

The RSA Chase is dominated by two horses already acknowledged as potential Gold Cup winners by their trainer, Nicky Henderson.

Perversely, however, both Long Run and Punchestowns might prove a little too brilliant for the demands of this race, both having

abundant speed and potentially vulnerable in a slog, while each has raised concern about their jumping during limited campaigns.

There are no such reservations about Citizen Vic (2.40), whose runaway improvement was rather disguised by more patient tactics over barely two miles last time.

He had been spectacular when positively ridden over two miles and five furlongs on his previous start, and promises to progress again now that he steps up to three miles.

Whether he will be so effective on drying ground remains to be seen, but the odds make ample allowance for that.

Since bumping into Dunguib here last year, when heavily backed for the Bumper, Rite Of Passage has impressed both on the Flat and over timber and duly returns as favourite for the Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle.

But his Flat pedigree will surely make him vulnerable to a staying type up the hill, like Quel Esprit (2.05).

This future chasing star can kick off a treble for Citizen Vic's trainer, Willie Mullins, who is as usual strongly represented in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper — the pick of his team perhaps being Bishopsfurze (5.15).

Jonjo O'Neill is another who can embellish a fine race record through Synchronised (1.30) while both handicaps are left to progressive novices in Wishfull Thinking (4.00) and Notus De La Tour (4.40).

Belfast Telegraph