You’d forgive people for taking a breather after one of the most dramatic weekends for the sport of horse racing, when AP McCoy created all the headlines.
But with the Cheltenham Festival only a month away, now is not the time for slumber, rather to press on reflecting on the informative action both in England and Ireland over the past few days.
In particular, several high-profile races helped transform the look of the Gold Cup market. It was tough keeping the ‘Champ’ out the limelight, and his win in the Irish Hennessy Gold Cup thrust Carlingford Lough into the reckoning for the Blue Riband in March.
Sunday’s race looked a most competitive renewal with no standout contender, and this was reflected in the betting. Last year’s Gold Cup runner-up On His Own was sent off favourite, but gave a lacklustre performance. Ruby Walsh had chosen him over Boston Bob, but reported the horse ran lazily throughout.
Lord Windermere performed with far more zest than in previous outings this season, no doubt enjoying the sounder surface, and turning for home looked the likely winner. But the current Gold Cup champ may have shot for glory a little too soon on this occasion and faded to third after the last. It was left to Foxrock and Carlingford Lough to fight out the finish, with McCoy’s mount getting home by just under a length.
Trained by John Kiely and owned by JP McManus, he could only manage sixth in last year’s RSA. His jumping had been patchy, and it’s also possible that a very busy campaign had left its mark. This season appears to have been geared around a crack at the Gold Cup and he will certainly arrive at Cheltenham a fresher horse this time round. He also appears to appreciate a sounder surface, possessing a telling finishing kick.
It was very noticeable just how much distance the front two put between themselves and the rest at the weekend. Ted Walsh’s seven-year-old was taking a huge step up in class and handled it with aplomb. He travelled into the race as good as any and jumped impeccably. He galloped on strongly to the line just failing to get to the winner and suggesting the Gold Cup trip would be ideal. Connections will need to supplement him for the big race should they decide to go for it. Walsh was typically droll in defeat when saying of AP: “I'm just sorry he didn't retire yesterday."
Carlingford Lough is now as short as 8’s for the Gold Cup whilst Foxrock is 10’s on Betfair. Lord Windermere appeared the best of the rest in the Hennessy and we know he thrives at Cheltenham. Two from two at the Festival he cannot be discounted in March though he was soundly beaten at Leopardstown. That famous hill may well dull the finishing speed of others and aid his chances of a repeat success, but I sense that at least one or two from Ireland may get the better of him this time round.
Road To Riches was a high-profile absentee on Sunday and he has looked to be one of Ireland’s better staying chasers this winter. His win in the Lexus Chase in December was impressive though that was achieved on testing ground. Many of his better performances have come on a sounder surface and he is a horse with plenty of speed as he showed in winning the Galway Plate. (A race also won by Carlingford Lough) Although he appeared to get home well at Christmas, the extended trip at Cheltenham and that ‘game changing’ hill will pose his greatest stamina test to date.
It seems likely that both Boston Bob and On His Own have now been left behind by more progressive Irish chasers and it’s hard to see either making an impact in what appears a stronger renewal this year.
Djakadam is the only other challenger from across the Irish Sea with a realistic chance of Gold Cup glory. As short as 12’s in places he was impressive in the Thyestes Handicap Chase when carrying top-weight to victory. It seems that Willie Mullins thinks an awful lot of this horse, but this is a huge leap in class for the six-year-old. His age and lack of experience along with breeding that suggests a preference for softer ground are all major negatives in my book. Of course he may well cause an upset, but as in the Hennessy at Newbury he appears much about potential rather than actual substance.
That Newbury race announced the arrival of Many Clouds, and he built on that success with a terrific win in the BetBright Cup Chase at Cheltenham. His trainer Oliver Sherwood was bullish after that win saying: “Last year's Gold Cup had a very strange end and the one thing our horse will do is get the trip, and if he gets in a battle I know who will win, and that will be Many Clouds." The one concern seems to be his need for testing conditions to be seen at his best, and the worry that quicker ground could force him out of his comfort zone. If he’s on the premises turning for home he’s likely to be finishing off his race as fiercely as any other.
Great performances at Newbury this season are common when looking at Gold Cup contenders. On Saturday another horse put himself in the picture with a stunning victory at the Berkshire track. He may still be a novice but Coneygree could well take his chance at the highest level come March. He thrashed a decent field which included Houblon Des Obeaux; previously third in the Hennessy behind Many Clouds; winning by a yawning seven lengths.
A decision on RSA or Gold Cup is yet to be made, but with the horse in such fine form it must be tempting to take a plunge. Much could depend on the ground at the Festival. Coneygree is another suited by a softer surface and should the forecast not favour him it would be no surprise to see him take on the novices. A powerful galloping front-runner, who has taken to fences like a duck to water, he would be a terrific addition to the main event.
Smad Place and Giant Bolster are both capable of making the frame and importantly both have Festival form. The former chased home Many Clouds last month, though he was in receipt of 8lbs. Better ground should help him get closer next month though it’s hard to envisage him reversing the form. David Bridgwater’s charge has an incredible record in the Gold Cup and it would be foolish to right him off. No doubt many will look at his odds, currently 33’s, and say ‘thanks very much, I’ll have some of that.’
Some will even keep faith with Bobs Worth as he returns to his favourite track. He ran no sort of race in the Lexus, and there’s no doubting that his form has dipped in recent times. He was however only four lengths behind the winner in last year’s Gold Cup, and if he is ever to get back to near his best, it’s likely to happen at Cheltenham. The ground may have been slightly too lively 12 months ago and it’s hard to rule him out completely. He remains five from six at the home of jump racing.
And so what are we likely to get from the favourite Silviniaco Conti? Free from ulcers and fitted with cheek-pieces, Paul Nicholls is adamant that he has the horse running better than ever. Impressive in both the Betfair Chase and the King George it’s hard to believe that he won’t get the trip at Cheltenham. However, I believe the question is more, ‘can he run up the hill faster than the others’?
That may sound rather simplistic, but Synchronised, Imperial Commander, Denman and yes even Lord Windermere were all able to power up that famous hill faster than the rest. That crucial run from the turn to the finishing line is where this great race is often won or lost. As good as Conti is, will he be able to hold off, or outsprint, several bigger more powerful finishers? Tactics I believe will be crucial to the outcome and just when Fehily decides to make his break for glory could be the key factor.
This Gold Cup more than many I can remember is a mighty puzzle to crack. Last year’s race saw the two favourites overhauled by a chasing pack after the last. This year’s renewal appears to have just as many contenders capable of charging up that famous hill. The result of the race could well come down to a jockey's decision on when to stick or twist.
The scene is set for an absolute thriller, with the result likely to be in doubt until the very final moment.