THE 158-rated Aso heads the weights on 11st 12lb for the £130,000 G3 Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham on Saturday, November 14.
Some of Aso’s (Venetia Williams) best performances have come at the Home of Jump Racing, most memorably when second to Frodon in the 2019 G1 Ryanair Chase at The Festival.
Seven horses have carried top weight to victory in the Paddy Power Gold Cup – the latest being Al Ferof in 2012 for Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh.
Nicholls’ seven entries this year include Paddy Power’s 6/1 joint favourite Saint Sonnet (11st 1lb), who has not raced since finishing seventh behind Samcro in the G1 Marsh Novices’ Chase at The Festival.
A strong team for Nicholls also features last week’s G2 Haldon Gold Cup victor Greaneteen (11st 5lb ex-5lb penalty), recent Chepstow scorer Grand Sancy (11st 3lb) and last year’s runner-up Brelan d’As (10st 11lb).
Paddy Power’s other market leader Imperial Aura (Kim Bailey) will shoulder a minimum of 11st 11lb, following a comeback success in the Listed Colin Parker Memorial Chase at Carlisle on November 1.
The prolific seven-year-old ran three times at Cheltenham last season and ended the campaign with victory in the Listed Northern Trust Company Novices’ Handicap Chase at The Festival.
Nigel Twiston-Davies is the most successful current trainer in the Paddy Power Gold Cup with four wins. The Gloucestershire handler’s three entries include second season chasers Al Dancer (11st 8lb) and Good Boy Bobby (11st), who have been in winning action this season at Newton Abbot and Bangor respectively.
Last year’s Paddy Power Gold Cup heroine Happy Diva (Kerry Lee) has been allotted 11st 5lb. Cyfor Malta (1998 and 2002) is the most recent dual winner of the race, although you have to go back to Bradbury Star in 1993 and 1994 for the latest back-to-back scorer.
Happy Diva almost recorded a famous double at Cheltenham last season when a gallant second to Simply The Betts (Harry Whittington, 11st 11lb) in the G3 Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate at The Festival.
The nine-year-old mare returned this term with a fifth in a Listed handicap chase at Wetherby on October 30.
Trainer Kerry Lee said: “Happy Diva has come out of Wetherby in fine fettle.
“She will come on plenty for that run and the Paddy Power Gold Cup is once again the aim.
“We were delighted with Wetherby, as she showed every inch of her usual zest and enthusiasm for the game.
“She is a fantastic horse and we are lucky to have her. She is so consistent and professional – she is just a pleasure to have in the yard.
“It was very special to see her win the Paddy Power Gold Cup and hopefully she can go close again.
“I only train around 20 horses and to be on the biggest stage in the biggest handicap pre-Christmas is very special.
“We are rubbing shoulders with the likes of Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson. What she has done for my career so far is phenomenal and hopefully we can create more memories at Cheltenham later this month.”
Other names to note include Mister Fisher (11st 9lb) – one of four entries for Henderson – and G1 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase victor Slate House (Colin Tizzard, 11st 6lb).
Paddy Power himself said: “We still can’t separate Saint Sonnet and Imperial Aura at the top of the market and the latter arguably put up the most impressive possible trial for the Paddy Power Gold Cup, being imperious at Carlisle last Sunday.
“But, while Saint Sonnet looks to have a lovely racing weight of 11st 1lb, Imperial Aura has to carry at least 11st 11lb which will be no easy task as only Taquin Du Seuil four years ago has defied such a burden in the last ten runnings.”