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Cheltenham Festival: A Plus Tard

He is the reigning Cheltenham Gold Cup kingpin and delivered the performance of his life in that win last March, but A Plus Tard will return to the Cotswolds with a massive question mark against him.

As the countdown for the 2023 Cheltenham Festival intensifies, we are taking a look at some of the horses expected to play major roles in the Cotswolds.

Henry De Bromhead's dual Festival winner was pulled up on his only run this season so far and goes back to Cheltenham with it all to prove - does he retain the sparkle of old?

WhatCheltenham Gold Cup
WhereCheltenham Festival, Cheltenham Racecourse, Gloucestershire
When3.30, Friday 17th March, 2023
How to watchITV Racing, Racing TV & bet365 Sports Live Streaming
OddsGalopin Des Champs 11/8, A Plus Tard 8/1, Noble Yeats 8/1, Protektorat 8/1, Bravemansgame 9/1, Stattler 9/1

Devastating performance may have left a mark

Going back to Denman in 2008, there have been a string of Gold Cup winners who have delivered big performances to win the Blue Riband and, quite simply, never been as brilliant again afterwards.

Imperial Commander, Bobs Worth and Coneygree joined The Tank in failing to truly match those Cotswolds efforts post-Gold Cup, while Don Cossack won in 2016 and never raced again after that.

The Gold Cup is the summit of National Hunt racing, climbing so high takes a herculean effort for any horse and only the very rarest and most talented can muster the effort to get to the top and retain the will do it all again.

A Plus Tard powered away from the then defending champ Minella Indo last March, reversing 2021 placings with his De Bromhead-trained stablemate as Rachael Blackmore gave him the perfect steer in the Gold Cup and they put 15 lengths between themselves and the pack.

It was an awesome effort, but repeating it is going to take some doing.

Festival pedigree never in doubt

A Plus Tard has the war stories to tell from a fine career. This Cheltenham Gold Cup will be a fifth successive Festival appearance in the Cotswolds.

Back in 2019, he delivered a scarcely believable effort to win the Listed Novices' Handicap Chase by a whopping 16 lengths, announcing himself on the big stage in doing so.

A year later, he was third behind Min in the Ryanair and he followed that with a battling second to Minella Indo in the Gold Cup itself behind closed doors in 2021. Last year, he delivered that tour de force in his own Gold Cup glory moment.

Those two Cotswolds successes form part of a CV that includes seven wins and eight more placed efforts in just 15 starts over fences since he joined De Bromhead from France - form figures that read 21213-213-212-121 when he landed his Gold Cup win.

Just remarkably consistent stuff for a horse who spent three seasons knocking around in Grade 1 company before ultimately getting that crowning moment.

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Haydock blowout so unexpected

It's against that backdrop that A Plus Tard's only run this season has to be judged. As he had in 2021 when scoring with consummate ease, he headed for Haydock's Betfair Chase in November and was 1/2fav to retain that crown.

He jumped right, never quite seemed himself under Blackmore and quickly sent out the distress signals when the pace was lifted, before being pulled up in a matter of strides. It was most unexpected.

Then came the news over Christmas that he was a raceday withdrawal from the Savills Chase at Leopardstown as De Bromhead said: "It's frustrating, but he's banged his joint and we just don't want to risk him."

Going for Gold feeling fresh

By mid-January the trainer was confirming that both A Plus Tard and Minella Indo would head for Cheltenham without prep runs.

Of the reigning champion, the Waterford handler opined: "We are sort of starting afresh and aiming for March. We're well able to get him spot on for the day and we'll just aim for that."

It's a far from ideal preparation. A Plus Tard has run well fresh in the past, but his record still shows just one win from four when returning from a break of more than 100 days. Without a prep and with the memory of that Haydock no-show still lingering, last year's emphatic Gold Cup winner is 8/1 to retain his crown.

Owing to varying degrees of uncertainty about some of the other contenders, that's still good enough to be second favourite behind strong ante-post market leader Galopin Des Champs, at 11/8 for Willie Mullins.

It wouldn't be wise to write him off but there's a sense that, like Denman - who finished second in three more Gold Cups after his barnstorming 2008 win - A Plus Tard may remain a skilled performer, but ultimately one who will struggle to scale the summit a second time.

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