There are plenty of familiar names in Cheltenham's New Year's Day highlight, several of whom have already contested one or both of the BetVictor Gold Cup and Caspian Caviar Gold Cup round here in recent months. The obvious one to start with is Village Vic who was placed in both those races, going down by a neck to Taquin du Seuil in the BetVictor and then finishing a close third under another big weight to Frodon in the Caspian Caviar. Both those races were on soft ground, and Village Vic won this same contest last season on heavy ground but he doesn't need the mud. The bold-jumping front runner is a stone higher in the weights than when successful in 2016, though the handicapper hasn't raised him any more for his latest effort which entitles him to go close again.
The Caspian Caviar runner-up Aso, a winner at Chepstow earlier this week, seems unlikely to take up this option (along with the same day's Kempton winner Double Shuffle), but one who could renew rivalry with Village Vic is Quite By Chance. He's closely handicapped with Village Vic after finishing just behind him in fourth here last time. That was a career-best effort from Quite By Chance who kept on well up the hill after being hampered by a faller earlier in the race. A winner of a good prize at Ascot over a shorter trip in the autumn, Quite By Chance will be bidding to sustain the red-hot form of Colin Tizzard's chasers. Aintree winner Thomas Brown was gambled on for the Caspian Caviar but never looked like justifying the support. That wasn't the first time his attitude has let him down and his record also suggests he's best when fresh.
Thomas Crapper and As de Mee both finished down the field behind Village Vic in the BetVictor Gold Cup, though the latter has since returned to form (minus usual headgear) with a win over the National fences in the Grand Sefton at Aintree. He's back on a higher mark now, however, and his strike-rate of one win from ten starts over conventional fences doesn't inspire confidence.
Nicky Henderson has a number of options, including the second-season chasers Vaniteux and L'Ami Serge, though both have their stamina to prove over this trip. L'Ami Serge didn't get home when third in the JLT Novices' here at the Festival over a slightly shorter trip, whilst his tendency to jump left cost him dear on his recent return at Exeter. The return to a left-handed track is at least something in his favour, though he also has an entry in the Relkeel Hurdle on the same card. Vaniteux didn't see this trip out over hurdles and has raced only at around two miles over fences so far, having no real excuses when third in a handicap at Cheltenham's last meeting.
Last year's placed horses Tenor Nivernais and Top Gamble also feature among the entries this time around. Tenor Nivernais hit a rich vein of form here last winter (placed in two other good handicaps at Cheltenham besides chasing home Village Vic in this), though he'd almost certainly need softer conditions than he's likely to face on Sunday. He maintained his good record fresh when third at Ascot over three miles on his reappearance before Christmas. Top Gamble also has a good record in the mud, though a lesser emphasis on stamina than last year might help him as he's at least as good over two miles. He probably needed the run in the Shloer Chase here in November, but returns to handicap company at the top of the weights off a 6 lb higher mark than last year.
The one who appeals most, though, is the youngest horse among the entries, Bristol de Mai, who will turn six on Sunday. He's yet to finish worse than second in ten starts over fences and was one of the top novices last term, beating As de Mee in the Scilly Isles at Sandown and finishing in front of L'Ami Serge when runner-up in the JLT. Bristol de Mai was a good second in the Rehearsal Handicap Chase last time on his handicap debut but shaped as though the near three-mile trip stretched his stamina. He'll be back to his optimum sort of distance on Sunday, and the Newcastle form has worked out well with a couple of the Rehearsal field finishing first and second in the Rowland Meyrick at Wetherby earlier this week.
Henri Parry Morgan unseated in the Rowland Meyrick and this looks on the short side for him if he seeks quick compensation here, and the same goes for former Irish National winner Shutthefrontdoor who is creeping down the weights but probably has bigger targets in the spring. Bristol de Mai looks the one to beat, with Quite By Chance the main danger.
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