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It's the big race of the entire meeting, and rightly so. No other race puts such a premium on stamina, class, and jumping ability - especially not the Grand National with its modified fences.
It's extremely rare that an outsider wins the Gold Cup, such is its combined demand. Even 100/1 Norton's Coin in 1990 has been claimed by many as a winner and, who knows, some of them may actually even have backed it! 😉
To this year's race, and first the trends...
My thanks for horseracebase.com for these data.
In the last sixteen years, of the fourteen winners to have completed last time, ten won and two more finished second. A further Gold Cup winner was third (See More Business) and one was fifth (Imperial Commander). The non-completion winners pulled up (Cool Dawn) and fell (Mr Mulligan) respectively.
Put another way, every winner this century aside from Imperial Commander finished first or second last time out.
When Long Run won in 2011, he was the first six-year-old since Mill House to prevail. At the other end of the age range, Cool Dawn was the last double digit aged horse to win the Gold Cup, as a ten-year-old in 1998. It used to be more frequent, with four ten-year-old winners between 1988 and 1998.
But, with the growing fashion for precocity, and the increased influence of French-bred horses on the winter sport, the average age has dropped from nine (1988-99, twelve renewals) to 7.85 (2000+, thirteen renewals).
Of the dozen Gold Cup winners with an official rating coming into the race, none was lower than 166. This year, only Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti have the requisite level of established 'official' form.
Seventeen of the last twenty winners came from the first three in the betting.
Some reasonable pointers in the Gold Cup trends, most of which point to the top of the betting lists. Let's now consider the form book, starting with reigning champion and favourite, Bobs Worth.
Bobs Worth is a very good horse indeed. And he absolutely loves Cheltenham and specifically the Festival. In 2011, he won the 'potato race' (Albert Bartlett). In 2012, he won the RSA Chase; and last year, he won the Gold Cup itself. That took his Cheltenham tally to five out of five, and he will again be very hard to beat.
Nicky Henderson's charge comes here off the back of two starts this season, which is one more than he managed last year prior to taking this prize. After a dismal too-bad-to-be-true pasting in Haydock's Betfair Chase, Bobs Worth reverted to type in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown.
Hendo's horses have been a bit in and out this season, but they do seem to be back firing on all cylinders now, just in time for Cheltenham. Bobs Worth has the highest level of form in the race - rated 180 - and ran a rock solid prep last time. He loves Cheltenham, and the ground ought to be just right for him: anything between good and soft will suit.
He looks certain to run his race.
Next in, and the only other horse with a rating above the historical benchmark, is Silviniaco Conti. Trained by Paul Nicholls, this could be a right good Hendo-Pumpkin set-to up the run-in, as this eight-year-old son of Dom Alco looks tailor-made for a Gold Cup. [Is there a prize for most hyphens used in a sentence?]
Silviniaco Conti went into last year's race on a four-strong unbeaten run, and was travelling extremely well when coming down three from home. It was much too early to say whether he would have won, because a) Bobs Worth is a very strong stayer, and b) Silviniaco Conti is a slightly doubtful stayer.
All of Silviniaco Conti's best form has been on flat tracks. But that's primarily because, with the exception of a third place hurdle start and that Gold Cup stumble/tumble, all of his form full stop has been on flat tracks.
That's a niggle here. It would have been fascinating to witness what Ruby might have conjured from his tanking mount after the turn for home, after the last, and up the hill. I think he'll probably stay. But I'm not sure. And that uncertainty is about the only thing that stops me from piling into him as one of the bets of the meeting.
My rationale? I reckon this is as close to a two horse race as you'll find across the four days. There is nothing in opposition to the top two that has demonstrated anything like the level of form needed to win an up-to-par Gold Cup.
"Hang on", I hear a few of you cry, "what about Last Instalment?". Good question, and perfectly fair, so let's examine his case.
Last Instalment, trained by in-the-dock but innocent-until-proven-guilty Philip Fenton, has enjoyed a return to the big time this season after two years out injured. His win in the PJ Moriarty Chase of 2012 set him up as one of the horses to beat in Bobs Worth's RSA Chase. Then it all went wrong.
27 days shy of two years later, he resurfaced in the Kinloch Brae Chase, a middle order Grade 2 run at Thurles. Sent off the 9/4 jolly that day, he ran well to finish a length and a quarter third to Texas Jack. But, improving significantly for that, he made most to bolt up in the Hennessy at Leopardstown in early February.
The going was on the dead side that day, and most races were won from the front. As such, Last Instalment may well have been flattered by how it panned out. Moreover, his trainer is on record as saying this horse wants deep ground.
Given a drying forecast, he might not even take his chance on the Gold Cup. And, if he does, that chance must be compromised on anything faster than good to soft (despite a 'good' ground win in the Topaz Novices Chase of 2011 - a questionable going description).
Last Instalment was awarded a peg of 169 for that Hennessy win, which puts him 'just' eight pounds behind Silviniaco Conti, and a further three behind Bobs Worth. In other words, he has half a stone and more to find.
If he's got a lot to find, the rest look varying degrees of (hopelessly) outclassed. Captain Chris is fourth in the list, on 16/1, and he'll surely need a bus ticket to complete this trip in front. His rating of 172 puts him in the mix, but his lack of a win beyond two miles six, and his recent Cheltenham form of P46 take him straight back out again.
I'm actually quite surprised they're not running in what looks a very winnable Queen Mother Champion Chase this year, as he was the Arkle winner in 2011.
First Lieutenant is a very good horse with a losing habit. Just one win in his last fifteen races tells the tale, even though twelve of them were Grade 1 affairs. Besides, he's more likely to run in the Ryanair unless Last Instalment absents from the Gold Cup.
The Giant Bolster is a 20/1 chance and that will buy you a run for your money if he decides to jump with any adequacy. He was fourth in last year's Gold Cup and second the year before, and he'll again plod on without being good enough to win.
Triolo d'Alene and Rocky Creek are 20/1 and 25/1 respectively, and they each have something to recommend them from an each perspective at least. First of all, they're trained by those men Hendo and Pumpkin respectively, and secondly they were first and second in the Hennessy Gold Cup last November where each lugged eleven stone-plus to beat off lighter weighted rivals.
Triolo had four pounds less than Rocky, and made that count by two and three quarter lengths at the line. Triolo has not been seen out since, and this for him is a Grand National prep run. A fair number of horses have made the frame in that context, but I wouldn't be backing him to receive 'kitchen sink' assistance from the pilot seat in a scrap for third place.
Rocky Creek is also prepping for the National, and has a likable profile. Just seven chase starts, all of them in the first three and including three wins, have demonstrated both jumping alacrity and stamina. He was giving The Giant Bolster five pounds the last day, and may not have enjoyed the heavy ground either.
On a sounder surface, and with further progression to come, I can see him going close to making the frame and 25/1 is more appealing than the prices about some of his supposedly more fancied market rivals.
It's nigh on impossible to make a case for much else, though Boston Bob is a seriously slow horse who stays well. He could plod into the medals. Perhaps.
There are likely to be all sorts of bookmaker concessions on the day for this race, as the layers scramble and scrap to claw as many pennies back into their virtual satchels as they can.
From a win perspective, I'm only interested in two horses: Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti. Quite frankly, I'll be gobsmacked if one of the pair doesn't win. And it's very tempting to back them 'coupled' at 8/11. But I don't really have enough elevens to be stealing eights, so I'm going to wait for the day and get as much 'bookie value' as I can.
As I read the form, the prices on the front two are at least fair, and perhaps a sniff of value, as they are. And when those cut-throat sales start on Friday morning, I'll be ready to get as much of both as I can.
Each way burglars might be tempted by Rocky Creek, who has more improvement than most, stays and jumps well, and could run into the frame.
Back Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti at the best prices available on Friday (Gold Cup day) morning. They're almost sure to be bigger than 2/1 and 3/1 respectively, albeit for restricted stakes.
For those who like to play for more, I think 8/11 the pair is one of the bets of the meeting. It's not bombproof - after all, the odds are 8/11, not 1/11 - but these two are far and away the most likely winners of the race in my opinion.
Rocky Creek is 25/1 Best Odds Guaranteed and Non Runner No Bet with bet365, and that's worth taking now, each way.