Royale Pagaille, the runaway winner of the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock in January, will attempt to become only the second novice chaser to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup since Captain Christy in 1974 after he was taken out of the field for Tuesday’s National Hunt Chase at the final declaration stage on Sunday.
Venetia Williams’s seven-year-old did not win any of his first eight starts in chases, including two after joining her stable for the 2019-20 season. He has not looked back in the current campaign, however, and got off the mark over fences at Haydock in December – when he was the 11-1 outsider of four – on the way to defying a handicap mark of 156 with ease in the Peter Marsh.
Royale Pagaille also holds an entry in Wednesday’s Brown Advisory Novice Chase (formerly the RSA) over three miles, but since Rich Ricci, his owner, is already fielding the odds-on favourite, Monkfish, in that contest, Royale Pagaille will take aim at the Festival’s feature event instead.
“He’s rated 166, whether he merits it or not time will tell,” Joe Chambers, Ricci’s racing manager, told Racing TV on Sunday, “but we might as well find out in the Gold Cup than elsewhere and wonder whether we should have. He’s been the surprise of the season and it’s something to look forward to.” Royale Pagaille is the fourth-favourite for Friday’s race at around 8-1, behind Al Boum Photo (5-2), Champ (9-2) and A Plus Tard (5-1).
The first Cheltenham Festival to be staged with no spectators will also have an unusually small number of runners on its opening afternoon, after just eight – the smallest field on record – were declared for Tuesday’s Supreme Novice Hurdle.
Michael Scudamore, the father of the future champion jockey Peter, was in the saddle when Sir Charles, who was trained by his father Geoffrey, beat eight opponents in 1950. The smallest field this century was a dozen runners, in 2013 and 2015, while the average over the same period is 18 starters.
Ten of the 18 five-day entries came out of the race, including three trained by Willie Mullins, who relies on Blue Lord to back up the challenge of Appreciate It, the ante-post favourite and runner-up in last year’s Champion Bumper.
The Arkle Trophy has also attracted a small field with Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin certain to start at odds-on to beat five opponents, while 13 runners – the smallest field this century – have been declared for the National Hunt Challenge Cup.