Horse Racing Tips

Mark Milligan's Big Race Verdict: Side with So Scottish in December Gold Cup

Can Mark pick a big race win at Cheltenham?

As we head towards the busy festive period, Mark Milligan sits in for Kevin Blake and gives his big race verdict on Saturday's December Gold Cup at Cheltenham...

  • Mark Milligan previews the big race at Cheltenham on Saturday

  • So Scottish heads up strong hand for McManus

  • An in-depth look at the other contenders

With Christmas just around the corner, attentions will soon turn the busy festive period and the absolute feast of racing that we're treated to from Boxing Day onwards.

However, prior to that we have the small matter of Cheltenham's excellent meeting and the mouth-watering prospect of a cracking renewal of the December Gold Cup.

A premier handicap run over an extended 2m 4f, the December Gold Cup has long and storied history, going back to the 1960s when one of the early renewals was won by Flyingbolt.

Moving on to the 80s, which was the decade that I first fell in love with racing while at school, David Elsworth's Combs Ditch, so often in the shadow of his illustrious stablemate Desert Orchid, took the race under Colin Brown.

More recently, Paul Nicholls' Frodon was a double winner of the contest in 2016 and 2018, while the most recent victor was Evan Williams' Coole Cody under Adam Wedge in 2021 (last year's meeting fell victim to the elements and was abandoned).

The Timeform view

So, who will come out on top in this year's contest?

Well, a quick glance down the list of weight-adjusted Timeform ratings below should allow us to narrow down the contenders somewhat:

176 So Scottish
175 Thunder Rock
174 Monmiral
172 Frero Banbou
171 Il Ridoto
171 Fugitif
170 Jay Jay Reilly
169 Fakir D'oudairies
168+ Grandeur D'ame

J P McManus goes in double-handed

As can be seen from the above list, there's not a lot between the top few horses, as one would expect from a competitive handicap such as this, and it be folly to also dismiss the chances of Fakir D'oudairies towards the bottom, who only ends up that low down due to carrying top weight.

He's a classy operator and this looks a fascinating bit of placing by connections, though it would be some feat for him to emerge on top carrying his welter burden.

Interestingly, the owner's retained jockey Mark Walsh has passed him over in favour of So Scottish, and it's not difficult to see why. This six-year-old is still low mileage over fences, and he racked up a hat-trick of novice chase wins last season before running a cracker on handicap debut when second at Ascot in November.

He returned from a break to finish seventh in the Magners Plate at the Cheltenham Festival, where lack of a recent outing seemed to tell on him late on having his first run in four months.

It was his jumping that rather let him down on his final outing at Punchestown, but he's had the summer to brush up on that and did shape as if needing the run when fourth on his return at Gowran last month.

That should have put So Scottish spot on for this and he has a leading chance.

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Other December Gold Cup contenders

Favourite Thunder Rock rather had his limitations exposed in top novice company last season but was found a good opportunity at Carlise on his return, where he beat Mahler Mission, who franked that form in no uncertain terms when finishing runner-up in the Coral Gold Cup at Newbury.

He's clearly got a strong chance off 146 but his place in the market rather reflects that.

Paul Nicholls' Monmiral makes his handicap debut on the back of a breathing operation and it would be no surprise if he steps considerably on the form he showed when well beaten on his final two starts last season. Paul sounds a confident note in his Betfair column.

Dropping back in trip, he has to be respected for a trainer who's won this race five times in the past.

Frero Banbou hasn't won for two years but still looks on a workable mark and would almost certainly have beaten Kandoo Kid but for belting the last at Newbury earlier this month. A strong-travelling type, he should make his presence felt in this more competitive contest.

Fugitif shaped as if as good as ever in first-time cheekpieces when fourth in the Paddy Power Gold Cup here last time, only tiring late having gone through the race with plenty of zest. He's entitled to come forward for that and rarely fails to give his running at this track.

Jay Jay Reilly's jumping has rather let him down in both races so far this season, each of those outings containing a significant mistake. He needs to cut out those errors in this company but has the ability to be a contender putting in an error-free round.

Grandeur D'ame absolutely bolted up in a much lesser race than this at Wetherby last time, putting in a tremendous display of fast, accurate jumping and taking his rivals out of their comfort zones a long way from home. This is obviously a much deeper contest but he shouldn't be dismissed getting plenty of weight.

December Gold Cup verdict

The presence of Fakir D'oudairies adds an intriguing layer of class to an already decent race, but he'll need to be at his absolute best to defy top weight and preference is for his owner-mate So Scottish, who still has an air of unfinished business about him in handicaps.

He clearly shaped as if the race was needed on his recent return and that looks to have teed him up perfectly for a shot at this big prize, while his handicap mark of 141 still looks more than workable.

Thunder Rock's recent win was paid a big compliment in the Coral Gold Cup and he looks to be one of the biggest dangers, while it would be folly to rule out Grandeur D'ame, who gave a flawless display of jumping when winning in facile fashion at Wetherby last time.

If he can jump as slickly in this company he'll be a threat to all at a much bigger prices than one or two of the others.

Back So Scottish to win Cheltenham 13:50 @ 11/26.50

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