Whether it proves a stepping stone towards a tilt at the Ryanair Chase in March or further handicap success during the winter, the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup is often won by an upwardly mobile young chaser.
Established in 1963, it has gone to numerous classy types over the years, but in 2006 one trainer in particular uncovered a gem that so nearly hit the very top of the sport.
Exotic Dancer had already swept to victory in the Paddy Power Gold Cup before lining up as an 8/1 shot for the race then known as the Boylesport.com Gold Cup. Adopting exaggerated hold-up tactics, he again sliced through the field late on, before storming up the famous Cheltenham hill to victory. Back in third that day was a Paul Nicholls trained five-year-old called Taranis. Three months later he would win the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
Jonjo’s young chaser was to take a different path. His winter wins at Cheltenham had shown him to be a powerful stayer, and connections decided a shot at the King George was in order. Unfortunately he was to bump in to one of the all-time greats at the peak of his powers. Kauto Star lay in wait at Kempton, and when the two met again in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, it was Nicholls’ superstar that once again gained the upper hand, beating Exotic Dancer in a memorable renewal.
Nevertheless, it had been a meteoric rise for O’Neill’s horse having won the Paddy Power off a handicap mark of 139 and ending the season rated a whopping thirty pounds higher.
Only three horses have managed to complete Cheltenham’s November-December Gold Cup double. Exotic Dancer was the last to win both and tomorrow’s renewal will see the Alan King trained Annacotty attempt to add his name to a rather select list. He won a thrilling Paddy Power Gold Cup on his first appearance for King and has to withstand a 5lb rise in the handicap. He renews rivalry with Evan Williams’ runner-up Buywise and third home Sound Investment.
Notoriously frustrating, Williams’ eight-year-old is sure to go close once again. Despite finding it difficult to win one of these big winter handicaps at Cheltenham, he is nevertheless ultra-consistent. Those who decide to keep the faith are likely to get a good run for their money.
Sound Investment hauled top-weight to a creditable third place last month and is burdened with the same task once again. Should Paul Nicholls manage to squeeze a little more improvement out of his seven-year-old, he looks sure to go close again. I remain firm in the belief that he will develop into a Ryanair contender. Tomorrow will likely tell us for sure.
Champagne West is one of the most intriguing contenders as he returns from a spell on the ‘easy list’. His last completed finish was a fine effort in defeat to Ptit Zig at Cheltenham back in January. That form now looks pretty strong, with Nicholls’ young chaser having impressed already this winter. With such a favourable profile it is therefore noteworthy that Richard Johnson has chosen to ride Philip Hobbs’ other runner, Village Vic.
He sits at the bottom of the handicap, and has been progressing steadily since missing the 2013/14 season through injury. This son of Old Vic out of a Garde Royale mare looked impressive last time at Musselburgh, tanking along up front and having the field on the stretch from a long way out. This will of course be a much tougher proposition and he lacks that all important track experience having never jumped a fence at Cheltenham.
I remain a fan of Art Mauresque who finished sixth in the Paddy Power in November having faded late on. He was given a positive ride that day, and probably paid the price at the death. Still only a five-year-old, if he settles well enough and is ridden with slightly more restraint, I can see him going close.
It’s a hugely competitive event as always, full of promising young chasers likely to continue on an upward curve over the coming months.