Even though the trainer and owner Ray Scholey opted not to enter the progressive seven-year-old in jump racing’s blue riband contest, Wakanda has more than earned his place in this eight-runner field headed by last year’s Gold Cup runner-up Djakadam.
Wins at Wetherby and Newcastle were followed by a stirring success in the prestigious Sodexo Silver Cup at Ascot on the Saturday before Christmas, one of the few occasions where a horse trained in the North has prevailed at a top southern track in recent times.
“We ran him over hurdles and we couldn’t win with him,” said the High Eldwick trainer, who recently recorded her 1,000th winner.
“He won his first chase around Hexham and we worked from that. When he jumped fences at home, he was always very, very natural.
“We always thought he was a nice horse, but going down there (Ascot) and winning like he did told us he is a little bit nicer than average.
“I doubt that Wakanda would be supplemented for the Gold Cup. We did put the question to his owner and he said he thinks perhaps we should wait until next year.
“He’s quick, he’s economical and he’s very brave. He is rated 155. You can’t win all the time, and this is not easy, but no one more than us here would love him to win.”
Smith was also fulsome in her praise for stable jockey Danny Cook, whose five rides on Wakanda have all ended in triumph.
“Danny loves the horse and gets on very well with him,” she added. “He’s a very good horseman. He’s a confident rider and is a pleasure to deal with. He gives very good feedback.”
The trainer’s comments were echoed by her no-nonsense husband Harvey, the redoubtable former showjumper, who told The Yorkshire Post: “The stupid thing is that Danny has the same temperament as me. All he wants to do is win. AP McCoy was of the same ilk. Winners.”
Though much interest will focus on the Crabbie’s Grand National hero Many Clouds, the performance of Djakadam will determine whether this is a horse that can provide the all-conquering Willie Mullins with a first Gold Cup – this remains one of the few big races to elude Ireland’s champion trainer.
Owner Rich Ricci’s racing manager Joe Chambers said: “We’ve always thought the world of him. He’s only seven, and if he hadn’t already been second in a Gold Cup, the hope you’d have would be that he’s still improving.”
Jockey Tom Scudamore, meanwhile, believes Thistlecrack will handle Cheltenham’s undulations ahead of the galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle.
Colin Tizzard’s charge, ante-post favourite for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, has quickly made up into the leading staying hurdler on either side of the Irish Sea with wins at Newbury and Ascot this season.
His only real blot on a hugely progressive profile is when he was beaten a long way on this card last year in the Neptune Trial.
“He’s a horse I’ve always thought a lot of and he’d obviously improved a good deal from Newbury to Ascot,” said Scudamore.
“I hope he’ll step up again but he was very impressive at Ascot. Reve De Sivola at Ascot in deep ground has been nearly unbeatable. He’d won three Long Walks so we were very pleased but I wouldn’t say we were surprised with how he did it. To beat him like that was very impressive.
“I don’t think anything about the Cheltenham form. He’s only run there once and it was just an off day, he was just below par, simple as that. I don’t really like comparing horses. Dynaste and Grands Crus were smart hurdlers but they didn’t win Grade Ones over hurdles.”
Thistlecrack’s chief rival is Robert Walford’s Camping Ground, a hugely impressive winner of the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day and who now steps up in trip to three miles for the first time.