03/15/2017 9:40AM

With last two winners out, Cheltenham Gold Cup a wide-open affair

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CHELTENHAM, England – Cue Card, Djakadam and Native River were 7-2 co-favorites with bookmakers on Wednesday to win Friday’s Grade 1 Cheltenham Gold Cup for steeplechasers at 3 5/16 miles at Cheltenham Racecourse.

They inherited the role as much as earned it.

Coneygree, the 2015 Gold Cup winner, is sidelined by injury, while Don Cossack, the 2016 winner, was retired because of injury in January. More recently, Thistlecrack, who won the Grade 1 King George VI Chase at Kempton Park in January, and Don Poli, third in the 2016 Gold Cup, also were taken out of training because of injuries.

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The $700,000 Gold Cup, which drew a field of 14, is the richest weight-for-age steeplechase in England. The Grand National at 4 1/4 miles at Aintree in April is a greater spectacle and a handicap, but the Cheltenham Gold Cup more closely resembles the Breeders’ Cup Classic in stature.

Colin Tizzard, who trains Thistlecrack, has Cue Card and Native River starting Friday.

Cue Card, 11, fell in the 2016 Gold Cup three fences from the finish while in contention. This season, Cue Card has won 2 of 4 starts, including a second to Thistlecrack in the King George. Cue Card won the Grade 1 Ascot Chase at 2 5/8 miles on Feb. 18.

Native River is on a three-race winning streak, having won the Hennessy Gold Cup in November, the Welsh National in December, and the Grade 2 Denman Chase last month. A 7-year-old, Native River would be the youngest winner of the race since Kauto Star won the 2007 running at the same age.

Djakadam was second in the 2016 Gold Cup and has one win in three starts this season, having taken the Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown, Ireland, on Dec. 11. Trained by Willie Mullins in Ireland, Djakadam beat Outlander in that race and was third to the same horse in the Grade 1 Lexus Chase on Dec. 28.

Outlander and Djakadam have not run since the Lexus Chase. The layoff from Christmastime to the Gold Cup has become increasingly common in the last decade as trainers attempt to have their horses in peak form for Cheltenham.

Outlander is one of two runners in the race trained by Gordon Elliott, who won the 2016 race with Don Cossack and had three winners at Cheltenham on Tuesday.