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It’s just nine weeks until the Cheltenham Gold Cup will be the highlight of the final day of this year’s Cheltenham Festival, and most of the major players have already run their ‘serious’ trials.
Yes, a number of them will run again between now and the Gold Cup itself, but they’ll generally not be having hard races so close to the main event. So, with the form of the key trials safely in the book, what clues can we glean and – for those of us who struggle to resist the allure of the ante post market – where should we invest our folding?
There are some strong trends, underpinned by strong logic, for the Gold Cup. And, if you like a nag which doesn’t pass muster here, you might want to re-evaluate your wagering strategy. Then again, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, so you may not…!
In any case, here are the material facts and figures:
- Age: Old horses don’t win the Gold Cup. In fact, the last horse older than ten to win was What A Myth in 1969. Tidal Bay is twelve now and, whilst his Lexus win is solid, there are reasons to believe he’ll not finish in front of all of the beasts he bested there at Cheltenham. At the other end of the spectrum, although Long Run won as a six-year-old in 2011, you’d have to go back to Mill House in 1963 to find the previous horse of that age to prevail.
In essence, we need a horse aged seven to ten, and probably only seven to nine year olds need apply.
- Official Rating: In the last fifteen years, four horses have won without a rating (from 67 to try). The remaining eleven winners were rated at least 166. This counts against the likes of The Giant Bolster, Kauto Stone, What A Friend, Grands Crus and Hunt Ball amongst plenty of others.
- Days since a run: Of those same fifteen winners, all had run between one and three months ago, with no fewer than ten Gold Cup winners having had between two and three months off the track. So, don’t fear a layoff of 60 to 90 days.
- Odds rank: Twelve of the last fifteen Cheltenham Gold Cup winners came from the first three in the betting. So this probably isn’t a race in which to get carried away with a long shot. Saying that, the other three winners were 16/1, 25/1, and 20/1 (but none was in the last dozen years).
- Last time out: Nine of the last fifteen Gold Cup winners also won on their prior start. Another three were second or third. One fell (Mr Mulligan), one pulled up (Cool Dawn), and one was fifth (Imperial Commander). All three of those unplaced last time out had been first or second at a previous Cheltenham Festival. Unsurprisingly, we’d be looking for a podium finisher last time, or a horse with proven Festival form.
So, on trends, I want a seven to ten year old, which has raced within the last three months, but not within a month of the main event; and probably in the top few in the market (though I’m interested in horse who have competed well at previous Festivals as likely outsiders)
Those which tick all boxes are Bobs Worth, the current favourite (assuming he has a run between now and mid-February, which he is scheduled to do); Sir Des Champs, the current second favourite; and Long Run, the current third favourite.
This is a race which often revolves around the top of the market, and I believe that it will again this year. Specifically, and apologies for the spoiler, I feel it’s between Bobs Worth and Sir Des Champs, and I find it hard to envisage any other horse winning.
Bobs Worth won the RSA Chase last year in grand style and, in one run since, beat up a good field in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury. The second horse there, Tidal Bay, was spotting the winner six pounds and only went down by three and a half lengths. But, for me, the winner was value for more than the official margin. First Lieutenant was another five lengths back in third that day, and the minor medallists went on to frank the form next time out.
Indeed, they finished first and second in the Lexus Chase, a race which is growing to pre-eminence in Gold Cup trial terms, and one in which the previous ante-post second favourite, Flemenstar, was ‘outed’ as a probably non-stayer.
Whilst one swallow may not make a summer – and one rapid emptying not make a stamina doubt – the evidence does suggest that the extra quarter mile on tougher terrain and in a likely faster-paced contest will undo Flemenstar, should he show up. For the record, he cruised and then emptied in the Lexus, eventually claiming bronze.
A short head back in fourth – beaten three-quarters of a length in total – was Sir Des Champs. This normally reliable fencer had bungled and blundered his way around Leopardstown in most uncharacteristic fashion, and yet was still staying on best of all. Assuming his jumping improves, this run screamed Gold Cup. At least, my eardrums were left ringing to that tune.
As for failing to register a 1-2-3 finish on his last start before Cheltenham, firstly, he may run again yet; secondly, he was denied that only by a fag paper verdict; and, thirdly, he won the Jewson at the Festival last year (and the Martin Pipe hurdle the year before), emphasising his taste for Cleeve Hill and its assorted impediments.
Let’s get back to Tidal Bay. After all, he came out best in the Hennessy on strict pounds-for-lengths; and he won the Lexus from talked up horses; so, surely, we ought to take him very seriously for the Gold Cup.
Well, yes and no. Yes, that form puts him bang there. And yes, he does seem to be in rude health. But he’s twelve. And I can’t help but feel that it would be a damning indictment on the ‘new generation’ if he prevailed. Allied to my moral argument (which, clearly, is no way to wager) is a perception that things have to fall absolutely spot on – as they did in the Lexus – for TB to grab gold.
That Lexus – incredible race that it was – saw Flemenstar go from swaggering hero to stumbling zero in half a furlong. It also saw that other questionable stayer, First Lieutenant, battle on bravely but run out of puff. And it witnessed Sir Des Champs’ jockey mightily relieved it wasn’t a show jumping round.
In a nutshell, two stopped in front of him, and one rallied manfully after a woeful round of jumping and just fail to get up. No, I can’t have Tidal Bay: the sort of horse who will send you skint and break your heart in equal measure, as your love and wagers are (generally) unrequited.
And what of Long Run? Well, this much maligned (often by me) horse has done next to nothing wrong. His jockey does ok – and it’s his old man’s horse, so who are we to question riding arrangements – but Long Run does tend to clout one or two (or three). Despite that, he has a Gold Cup and the most recent renewal of the King George to his name, as well as a third place in last season’s Gold Cup – when beaten just three lengths.
So why don’t I like his chance? Well, I do respect his chance. And he has form to go close. And I think he’ll probably be a shorter price on the day. But. But… that pilot. Sam Waley-Cohen. Not for me. Not one iota.
And, of the top order in the market, what about Silviniaco Conti? He’s surely a flatterer and has it all to prove to my eye. He’s beaten up small fields on flat tracks, and was beaten the only time he came to Cheltenham (and outside the Festival at that). Yes, he beat Long Run, but he had match fitness on his side that day. I very much doubt he’ll beat him in mid-March on Gold Cup Friday.
Of the outsiders with Cheltenham Festival form, First Lieutenant won the Neptune in 2011, and was second to Bobs Worth in last year’s RSA Chase. On better ground, he’s respected as a place chance again. The Giant Bolster proved a lot of doubters wrong with his gritty display in last year’s Gold Cup, beating Long Run and finding the galvanised Synchronised only a couple of lengths too good. He’s worthy of a second look at 25′s, especially if the ground starts to dry up. He’ll have hated this deep winter turf.
And then there’s Hunt Ball. He’s got to prove he stays this far, and that he’s good enough. But he ran a nice second on bad ground in the Kempton running of the Peterborough Chase over Christmas and, on better ground, he’ll probably run better than a 33/1 shot.
So there you have it. Plenty of horses with ostensible chances, but a two horse race for me. Quite simply, I feel that if Bobs Worth doesn’t win the 2013 Cheltenham Gold Cup, then Sir Des Champs will.
Long Run is respected, as is to a lesser degree Tidal Bay. Silvianiaco Conti is, I believe, the sheep in wolf’s clothing: a toothless pretender in the context of this sort of a race. (And I hope I’m right because that sort of statement can make a person look really very silly indeed!)
Outsiders worth a second glance – and expected to improve on their seasonal showings to date on better ground – are The Giant Bolster and Hunt Ball.
Selection: Bobs Worth 3/1 general
Next Best: Sir Des Champs 5/1 general
Outsider: The Giant Bolster 25/1 general
Who are your fancies for the Gold Cup, and why? Leave a comment and let us know.