Tony Calvin concludes his marathon stint in the Festival tipping chair with a full rundown of Friday's Gold Cup card including bets for all seven races...
"I loved the manner in which Invitation Only prevailed there over 3m1f in the soft - it was only his second start beyond 3m (his previous attempt resulted him being badly hampered when in with every chance at Punchestown last April) - and it proved beyond doubt that he was a stayer rather than a speed horse."
No second Invite needed to back my Gold Cup fancy
Invitation Only was my biggest ante-post winner coming into Cheltenham week and I am not losing the faith going into the Gold Cup at 15:30.
I have been backing him ever since he won the Thyestes, and duly put him up in these columns, and I'm convinced that he has a huge run in him.
He will need to run a career-best by a stone and more to see these off - and he hasn't done it on the clock either - but he remains a bet for me at [36.0] or bigger.
One of the reasons why I like him is that Willie Mullins has used the Gowran handicap he won last time with On His Own and Djakadam in recent years. Both of those obliged there and went on to finish runner-up in the Gold Cup that season, though the former came to Cheltenham via the Bobbyjo Chase while this was Djakadam's next start.
And Invitation Only's win at Gowran came off a far higher mark than the victories of that pair.
Granted, any number of this field could have won that off a mark of 152 - most of them, in fact - and both of the placed horses at Gowran have been beaten since.
But I loved the manner in which he prevailed there over 3m1f in the soft - it was only his second start beyond 3m (his previous attempt resulted him being badly hampered when in with every chance at Punchestown last April) - and it proved beyond doubt that he was a stayer rather than a speed horse.
So he is unexposed at this distance, and the little rain on Thursday is very much in his favour.
He didn't have the best of luck here last year when slipping on landing four out in the JLT, and having to be pulled up afterwards, bit I'm confident he will outrun his price at the very least.
Last year's winner Native River remains the one to beat for me, and he is the safest each-way betting conveyance if you want to play at the top of the market.
Henderson to land another Festival win in Friday's opener
I've gone "off brief" by going out of chronological order, so I better back get back on track, and take in the opener, where quite clearly Sir Erec is the one to beat in the Triumph Hurdle at 13:30.
He may have got an easy lead when beating Gardens Of Babylon (who runs in first-time cheek pieces) at Leopardstown last time, and that is clearly no gimme here, but it was impossible not to be impressed with him there and this is a 109-rated Flat stayer with form on heavy ground that we are talking about here.
Given the trainer's strength in depth with his juveniles, it is telling that this horse is far and away the apple of his eye - the prince among an orchard of riches - and connections clearly think they could have another Istabraq on their hands.
Let's not christen him too early though, and I think Pentland Hills could give him a run for his money. Split your stakes by backing him at 20/1 each way with the Betfair Sportsbook, and at 9/1 in their "without favourite" market.
He was a really progressive horse on the Flat when with Chris Wall and one that showed his best form on his final start for him on soft, though this will be a different kettle altogether on that front.
Granted, his form was light years detached from that of the favourite, but he looked a very smart recruit when hacking up at Plumpton on his hurdling debut.
The runner-up didn't advertise the form in the Supreme on Tuesday (though he was a massive outsider, admittedly) but Pentland Hills could do no more than win as it he did there, and apparently the clock-watchers were drooling at his time for the last circuit. And I know his jockey was suitably impressed there.
I wouldn't go overboard about the fact that Nicky Henderson won that same Plumpton race with his 1984 Triumph Hurdle winner First Bout, but every little addition to the argument helps!
Hannon is an interesting candidate from Ireland at a price, but he is unproven on the ground.
A little love for Lisp but it's a tough one to call
I've seen easier races to solve than the County Hurdle at 14:10 but my money is going on Lisp at 25/1 each way, five places, with the Sportsbook.
His effort behind Al Dancer in the Betfair Hurdle last time was a bit underwhelming, and he hasn't been dropped for it either, but I think this greater test of stamina on softer ground will suit him better.
He only got as far as the third when a 10/1 chance for the Fred Winter here last season but his handicap performances at Newbury and Ascot on soft this season suggest this test could be ideal for him, even if he has gone up 8lb for those efforts. Thursday's rain will have suited by this heavy-ground winner.
Magic Dancer finished well ahead of him in the Betfair Hurdle and loves it here, so he was my alternative at a similar price, but he went up 5lb for that Ascot second and probably wouldn't appreciate too much more of the wet stuff.
A right Charlie for the Albert
I have been boring everyone here and Racing TV senseless with my ante-post love for Rockpoint in the Albert Bartlett at 14:50.
I have backed him at all rates from 16/1 to 33/1, but I have to say my love for him is slightly on the wane after two recent defeats.
All in the garden looked rosy when he beat Lisnagar Oscar over course and distance here in December, and I could live with his defeat under a penalty stepped down to 2m5f in quick ground at Warwick.
But he never went a yard behind Lisnagar Oscar at Haydock last time, plugging on for sixth after looking likely to be tailed off at one stage.
What I would say that he was a massive drifter at both Warwick and Haydock, which leads me to believe that he may not have been at his physical best there - he apparently is a very stuffy horse who needs a lot of work - but I have to admit that that 33s is probably a fair reflection of his chances now, especially as his stable could be in a lot better form.
Let's hope he wins anyway, as I have him for a right few quid ante-post!
Lisnagar Oscar is my idea of the right favourite after that hugely impressive Haydock win, but I can let him go unbacked in a field of this size and depth, but that doesn't apply to Aye Aye Charlie.
Back him at [44.0] or bigger.
He didn't run at all badly as a 100/1 chance when seventh in the Ballymore here last year, and then he finished an excellent fourth to Black Op in the Grade 1 at Aintree.
Given the merit of that run, he has been pretty underwhelming in four starts this season, and has looked less than straightforward on occasions, too.
But there was much more promise behind Paisley Park in the Cleeve Hurdle last time - he was beaten a fair way in sixth but that was clearly against a better class of horse than he meets here - especially as he was badly detached for most of the way before picking up well in the straight.
He has had a breathing op since then, too - perhaps it was his wind that has been ailing him, as he wore a tongue-tie for the first time in the Cleeve - and I reckon quotes of around 40/1 do him a fair disservice.
He is a second-season novice who has exactly the right level of experience (this is his 11th start) for this race, and this soft ground suits him ideally.
Can't leave Caid unbacked
I normally always leave the Foxhunter alone but I am going to have a smaller wage of Festival stalwart Caid Du Berlais at [9.2] or bigger in the 16:10.
He has finished second in a Fred Winter in 2013, third in a Martin Pipe in 2014, eighth in a Pertemps in 2017 and last year he finished fifth from well off the pace in this race.
He has had the same build-up this year, winning a point at the start of this month, and the ground shouldn't be an issue. A price of around 8/1 looks a touch on the generous side for a horse with his Cheltenham CV, although the 10s unfortunately went on Thursday afternoon.
Gamble looks good again
The Grand Annual at 16:50 looks as tough as ever, though I can't have the horses at the top of the betting at their single-digit odds. Not for me, sorry.
The two I like at the odds are course-and-distance specialist Bun Doran and last year's third Top Gamble, though the worry with former is whether he showed his hand too early when going up 10lb for his win here earlier in the season.
It wouldn't surprise me were he to make the frame but I tend to think Top Gamble is on more of a winning weight, so he gets the vote at [24.0] or bigger.
I backed and tipped him in this race last year when he met two pieces of pretty serious trouble late on but still managed to finish third.
He has clearly had a poor season, and has fallen on his last two starts, but at least he is 6lb lower now, and his stable are in a lot better form now than when he had his three runs in December.
The cheek pieces that he wore for the first time here last season, and which were left off last time, are back on and the ground has come right for him. And it is s fact that most of his better runs have come at this track. He won't be far away if he gets his jumping together.
A big price for the final race of the Festival
Dallas Des Pictons hasn't been missed in the market, and then some, for the Martin Pipe at 17:30, and you surely have to look elsewhere.
Style De Garde is a possible at around 25/1 but at a similar price Mr Antolini has to get a bit of my money.
Back him at [34.0] or bigger.
I think connections have made a bit of a pig's ear of his campaign to be honest, seemingly not knowing if he is a two or three-miler, but this intermediate trip seems a fair compromise and the testing ground is in his favour.
If he returns to the form of his Imperial Cup win last season, or his Haydock third over 2m3f in November - and he also ran well here on his reappearance, which was a nice sighter - then he is handicapped to make his presence felt off a mark of 140.
I know he was pulled up last time at Sandown last time, but that is why we are getting 25-1+.
Pentland Hills at 20/1 each way, and at 9/1 each way without the favourite, in 13:30
Lisp at 25/1 each-way in 14:10
Aye Aye Charlie at [44.0] or bigger in 14:50
Invitation Only at [36.0] or bigger in 15:30
Caid Du Berlais at [9.2] or bigger in 16:10
Top Gamble at [24.0] or bigger in 16:50
Mr Antolini at [34.0] or bigger in 17:30