Cheltenham Gold Cup 2016: Preview, Trends, Tips
The showcase race of the showcase meeting of the National Hunt season is the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, a Grade 1 chase run over an exacting and extended three and a quarter miles. At time of writing it is a wide open heat, with bookmakers offering 5/1 the field.
And, with just two more major trials - the Irish Gold Cup on Saturday, where Road To Riches could advertise his claims - and next Saturday's Denman Chase from Newbury, most of the form is now in the book. Barring an exhilarating performance the market is likely to be largely unchanged, so if you like something right at the top of the betting lists you may as well sit tight until Cheltenham week when I'd be surprised if one maniacal layer or more don't offer at least 6/1 and possibly 7/1 your pick, such is the feel of the race this year.
As is traditional by now, let's begin with some trendage.
2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup Trends
Using horseracebase.com as a starting point, the below covers the last eighteen renewals of the Gold Cup, going back as far as 1997 (no race in 2001 due to foot and mouth).
Gold Cup Age Trends
We can see from the below chart that horses aged nine and younger have all outperformed their numerical representation, both in terms of wins and places.
The 179 horses with a single figure age (70% of the total Gold Cup runners) took 17 of the 18 Gold Cups (94%) since 1997 and 44 of the 54 places (81%).
We have to go back to the 1990's for the last double digit aged winners, a pair of Cool's, Cool Dawn (1998) and Cool Ground (1992). The last horse older than ten to win was the twelve year old What A Myth 47 years ago.
Although this won't discount a huge amount of runners, the likes of The Giant Bolster, First Lieutenant and Boston Bob (all eleven), and perhaps more notably Cue Card, a ten year old, have plenty of history to defy.
Former winners Kauto Star and Imperial Commander were both 4/1 or shorter when pulling up as veterans, and even the mighty Denman (and Kauto Star again) could fare no better than second in the autumns of their stellar careers.
Gold Cup Last Time Out Trends
This is always a bit of a slippery fish, so take care how much store you put in these data. In what is the prime test of a horse's ability, it will come as no surprise that a majority of recent Gold Cup winners also won their previous race.
However, despite eleven horses doubling up on their last day win (61%) from just a third of the runners, there has been no route to profit as a consequence of this most obvious angle.
Minor podium finishers last time have a woeful record, netting just thrice from 89 runs (17% wins from 34% runs). Their place record is little better.
Interestingly, perhaps, especially if you're a Djakadam fan, those to have fallen or pulled up last time claimed a brace of Gold Cups in the survey period, courtesy of Mr Mulligan and the aforementioned Gold-en oldie, Cool Dawn. Still, it's nearly twenty years since and we're still waiting for another to add to the roster of last time out non-completion winners.
Gold Cup Market Trends
Again, I wouldn't get especially juiced up about the portentous nature of this dataset, but there are a couple of interesting titbits therein.
Ignoring the performance of those who were sent off very short (9/4 or shorter), as there is unlikely to be a runner with as tight a return on successful investment this time around, there has been joy for those speculating a touch further down the lists.
As things stand, I'd expect one horse - probably the Mullins pick of Ruby Walsh - to head the market at around 4/1 or 7/2. It could be 6/1 bar one, and there may be three or four or even five more horses at 10/1 or lower.
Given that this group will take out much of the rest of the market - it's currently 33/1 bar seven - I'd say the winner is very likely to be housed in this section again. Who that winner will be remains as much of a mystery as it was 700 words ago!
Gold Cup Seasonal Runs Trends
This one could have more to offer serious pattern punters, as a challenge like the Gold Cup is not one to embrace off a less than optimal preparation.
There is a linearity to both the win and place percentages in terms of number of runners, ramping from zero for a septet of Gold Cup seasonal debutants, through 5% wins-to-runs for a single prior run, 7% wins-to-runs for two or three previous races that season, 8% for four prior outings, and peaking at 14% for those having had five races already in their Gold Cup-winning season.
It is a similar story on the place side of things, with four and five prior starts looking to be a positive. This might count against the likes of Road To Riches (three, if he runs in the Irish Gold Cup), Don Poli and Djakadam (if they now route straight to Cheltenham) and, perhaps most notably, the twice raced this season, Vautour.
Of course, horses have 'got it done' off lighter preps, so it's very far from a death knell, but a bit more match practice looks ideal.
Other Gold Cup Trends
Coneygree, a novice, was a bit of a stats buster last year, barreling his way faultlessly over the stiff fences to an all the way win. In so doing he weakened one previously strong-looking 'qualification', thus:
- 14 of the previous 15 (now 16) winners had taken in either the King George or Lexus Chases. (Coneygree ran in the Feltham on King George day over the same course and distance)
Thanks to the Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide for this negative trend:
- Only one winner since 1983 - that's 33 years - was placed in the previous year's Gold Cup (possible bad news if you like either Djakadam or Road To Riches)
2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup Form Preview
So much for the numbers, what about the form book? As I write there are still a couple more acts to be played out ahead of the big day but, for most, their track rehearsals are complete.
Favourite right now, at 9/2 and almost be default, is Vautour, last season's super-impressive JLT Novices' Chase winner. Since his 15 length verdict there, he's seen off Ptit Zig by less than two lengths and been beaten by Cue Card in the King George. Hardly Gold Cup-winning form, on the face of it at least.
In his favour is that JLT win at Cheltenham. But the list of knocks, or potential knocks, is long. First, the form of the JLT is moderate at best. Runner up, Apache Stronghold, has run F3 since; and third placed Valseur Lido has been whacked twice this season since winning a G1 at the Punchestown Festival post-Cheltenham.
The next three home have won two little races between them from seven runs, and the last pair are one from nine collectively, that win coming in a beginners' chase.
Secondly, Vautour has had just two runs so far this season and that is less than is suggested in the historical blueprint. As I've written, it can be done, but it may not be ideal.
Third, and much more of a concern - to this scribe at least - is Vautour's unproven stamina. Although others have argued to the contrary, he looked for all the world to have run out of petrol when chinned by Cue Card in the King George last time. That was on pan flat Kempton's oval, so it is at best a leap of faith to see him staying the Gold Cup trip of more than a quarter mile further over the peaks and troughs of Cheltenham's bowl. Still more so if one assumes that Smad Place will set the tempo somewhere between allegro and presto.
Fourth, and this would be the least compelling of the arguments, Willie Mullins is 0 from 14 in the Gold Cup, though he has saddled six placed horses including the last three runners up. And one of those, On His Own, should have probably been awarded the race!
If Vautour was 9/1, he might be fairly attractive as an each way proposition, but with the above reservations - the first and third of them at any rate - he's a filthy awful terrible price to my eye, regardless of who rides him.
5/1 brings in Don Cossack, a far more credible contender, though one whose armour also hints at chinks. The first of the Don's - Poli being t'other - he's been a win machine for Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown owner, Michael 'Ryanair' O'Leary. Indeed, he's now won 15 of his 26 races, including 11 of 18 chase starts, and all bar two of his last 11 races.
Two of his defeats - and one in the recent sequence - have come at Cheltenham on the only two times he's visited the track. In fairness, it was a tumble when still going well enough in the RSA Chase the first time, and he was impeded before running on into third on the second occasion in last year's Ryanair Chase.
The fact he ran in the Ryanair offers a clue to one of Don Cossack's challenges: stamina. Although he's won over as far as three miles and a furlong around Punchestown, it would be hard to definitively vouch for his ability to get home in a licketty-split Gold Cup.
Still, he's got more proven stamina than Vautour, and he has plenty more in the book than that animal too (whilst not retaining the upside potential, granted). There likely wouldn't have been much between the pair at Kempton in the King George if Don C hadn't fallen at the second last and, if he can stay upright, I'd want Elliott's Don in a match bet with Vautour come Gold Cup day.
We then arrive at Djakadam, whose market star has waned from leadership to third choice, as a direct consequence of a nasty looking disagreement with the tenth obstacle in the Betbright Trial Cotswold Chase. Despite that second tumble in three Cheltenham outings, he remains 11/2, largely by dint of his proven ability for the Gold Cup, courtesy of a brave and close up second in last year's blue riband.
That gallant effort from a then six year old strongly suggested he was a future Gold Cup winner, though he does have to overcome the stat about placed horses from the previous year. In truth, it's hard to logically justify it as anything more than a factoid - something for trivia more than form buffs - and Djakadam is better judged on the balance of his past performances.
Those tumbles are a bona fide worry but, again, can be put into a context of a horse that is generally an accurate leaper, and who still has further refinement to come after just nine chase starts. One slight niggle is the ground, which is normally on the good side for the Gold Cup, though was soft last year.
Djakadam's six wins have been achieved on heavy (four), soft (one) and yielding to soft (one). That yielding effort came in a beginners' chase where he was hard pushed to beat Si C'Etait Vrai, an exposed 132-rated chaser.
Another question mark is around how good a traveller he is. Sure he was second in the Gold Cup last year, but in three other trips across the Irish Sea he's run F8F, and as favourite in the latter pair of races. The second string to Wullie's bow is a very talented horse, but I'm not sure I'd want to back him at his current odds, even if he will shorten should Ruby choose to ride.
And so to Don Two, or Don Poli, to introduce him correctly. A third arm of the Mullins armoury, Don P is another for whom rider arrangements are no foregone conclusion. His usual partner is Bryan Cooper, Gigginstown's retained pilot. But with Don Cossack in the same ownership, it will be a tough call between the pair. Sitting on the wrong horse as the other wins the Gold Cup must be one of racing's most deflating experiences, so here's hoping Coops and/or Rubers opt correctly!
Don Poli is a far more interesting horse than many in this field for a number of reasons. Firstly, he's five from six over fences, including last year's RSA Chase. Secondly, he also won the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle at the previous year's Festival, giving him an unbeaten two from two record at the track and at the Festival.
Third, he's not flashy: his five chase wins - including three Grade 1's - have been by an aggregate of sixteen lengths. Compare that with Vautour, whose JLT victory almost covered that spread in a single swipe, and it may be easy to see why this son of Poliglote has been somewhat overlooked to my eye.
He doesn't seem to have stamina reservations, he doesn't seem to have ground grumbles, and he doesn't have any course concerns. The only question with him is, "is he good enough?" To which the answer ought to be, "who knows?"
At 6/1, he might just be my pick of the top order, mainly because I think he'll keep finding when others have reached the bottom of their barrels. And because I think he has class underneath those rugged features and that misleading workmanlike impression.
Cue Card concludes the leading quintet at a top price of 7/1. It is strange to think that he won the Champion Bumper at the Festival as far back as 2010, when four years old. The more electric mathematicians will have already worked out that he's now ten, and those of you who are really switched on get a bonus point if you've recalled the Gold Cup record of runners of Cue Card's vintage: no winner this old since Cool Dawn in 1998.
In CC's defence, he is relatively lightly raced for his age and, though he won at the Festival all those six years ago, he has not been sighted in this part of the world since 2013. His Festival record, though somewhat outdated, is excellent: as well as the Bumper win, he was fourth in Al Ferof's Supreme, second in Sprinter Sacre's Arkle, and then won the Ryanair.
Since then, he's been a touch in and out, prior to this season, in which he has been better than ever - according to the ratings agencies, at least. A hat-trick of Graded wins, the last pair in G1 company, culminated in a last gasp resurgent verdict over Vautour in the Christmas feaure, the King George VI Chase.
He's now officially rated 176, two ahead of Vautour and one ahead of Don Cossack. Like many, I'm a big fan of this horse, and especially his trainer, Colin Tizzard. But, like many, I take the view that he's probably too old, and that he possibly won't quite see out the final two and a half furlongs up that punishing incline.
As with a few other horses during Cheltenham week, it will be heart-warming but wallet-lightening stuff if he prevails.
The top five in the market can currently be dutched at 3/10 or so, a fact that attests to greater depth in the expected field. Next there is a pair of 12/1 shots, Smad Place and Road To Riches, whose profiles are quite different.
Road To Riches was third in the race last year before finishing in the same placing behind Don Cossack in the Punchestown equivalent. He's been seen just once this term, an easy win in a Grade 2 chase in November. He looked to beat some unfit rivals that day - certainly Felix Yonger and First Lieutenant came on markedly for their laboured efforts there - and his appearance this weekend in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown will help gauge wellbeing.
It's a disappointing shallow looking renewal of the Leopardstown feature, however, and nothing less than a convincing win will merit any upgrade of his quote. In his favour, Road To Riches is probably still improving despite 13 chases to his name, his last three runs being very close to his best. He was only beaten three and a half lengths last year, but had reached the end of his rope up the hill, getting passed by Djakadam at that point.
He's not for me, though I could see him again running into the frame.
The other 12/1 shot, who was as low as 10/1 after his Hennessy win, and as high as 33/1 after his King George fourth, is Smad Place. Historically he's looked as though he'd be no more than a jobbing actor on the Grade 1 stage, but a wind operation last summer - and a more confident front-running style since - has shown his ability in a new light.
He was expected to beat Fingal Bay on his seasonal bow, the market sending him away at 6/4, but he wasn't expected to swat that one aside with such nonchalance. Then came a blitzkrieg of an effort in the Hennessy where his rivals were browbeaten by a barrage of bold jumping and a relentless gallop from Alan King's white star.
A month later, at Kempton on Boxing Day, Smad Place looked a different horse, on a different track. Unable to get to the front in a race where Silviniaco Conti - attempting to secure a back-to-back(-to-back!) King George treble - paid for his pace pressing by pulling up, SP could not go on with the front three. As Don Cossack fell, so Smad Place was overtaken by Al Ferof for third.
But Kempton is not Cheltenham, nor is it even Newbury in terms of its stamina test. Although plenty of horses have made both the King George and the Gold Cup their own, that has generally been because they were the dominant player in the staying chase division. This year, the division is wide open as the betting illustrates.
Thus, perhaps the emphasis on speed over stamina undid Smad Place. And perhaps not, of course: maybe he was simply not good enough. The subsequent quotes of 33/1 seemed to suggest bookmakers veered towards the latter possibility.
They were still erring toward that view after last Saturday, when the nine year old demolished a field of Grade 1 animals and some good stayers to boot, in heavy ground around Cheltenham's stiff pistes. But such was the unequivocal nature of his twelve length win from Grand National winner (and the winner of this Cotswold Chase last year), Many Clouds, punters forced early offers of 20/1 into the now stable 12/1 across the board.
He's a tough horse to peg is Smad Place. A rating of mid-150's last year has given way to one nudging the 170's now. That puts him about seven pounds behind the leading players, but with proven affection for the course (third in two World Hurdles, second in an RSA Chase) and a new lease of life afforded by the liberation of his airways, allied to more proven stamina than many rated higher, he must surely be in the mix.
Thereafter is the realm of the 33/1 hopes, hope being both the operative word and used in a very loose sense in many cases. Let's clear out some of the dead wood in the market quotes:
Valseur Lido won't stay, a contention lent credence by the strong likelihood of him running in the shorter Ryanair Chase; Saphir Du Rheu is far more likely to run in the World Hurdle, and anyway his jumping isn't good enough and nor is his rating; Holywell jumps like a chest of drawers and could possibly go for a handicap chase, so far has his mark plummeted; Triolo d'Alene is a stone shy of what's required and will be prepping for the Grand National; and so it goes on.
There are two which I feel have at least a sniff of the frame, however. The first is Many Clouds. He was some sort of superstar last season, winning three on the bounce including the 'Smad Place double' of Hennessy and Cotswold Chase before running a middling sixth in the Gold Cup.
If it seemed like his season had fizzled out, not a bit of it: the brave blighter won the Grand National despite an impost of eleven stone nine pounds on his next start. He'll have the full 11-10 in his repeat bid and, if Smad Place (or any other front runner) is a tad less pacey on the Gold Cup sharp end, he may not be so readily outpaced in his final prep, assuming he runs in the race. [Connections have suggested they may not go for the Gold Cup, instead taking in Kelso in the Scottish borders, so NRNB is your friend if you like Many Clouds].
Staying is clearly his game, but he's tough and not without class too. If you share my view that a number towards the head of the market have stamina questions to answer, then a shekel win and place Many Clouds won't be the worse bet you strike in 2016.
(Far) more speculatively, may I draw your attention briefly to the green and gold silks of Carlingford Lough? No bigger than 14/1 in the Gold Cup last year, having won the Hennessy Gold Cup (now Irish Gold Cup) on his prior start, he is another for whom stamina is a given but who may just lack the toe - and the talent - to claim major honours.
That's only the half of it, mind. This season has seen three lamentable efforts, two over fences and one over hurdles, leading to a suspicion he may not be the horse he was. At ten, that's a distinct possibility, but if you're into straw clutching, a bet before Saturday at 66/1 non-runner no bet isn't as mental as it might sound.
Remember, he won the race last year. That's the first thing. More importantly from a bank preservation perspective is that if he runs poorly for a fourth time in a row he'll surely not run in the Gold Cup meaning stakes are returned. If he runs a lot better, he shortens in the market.
2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup Tips
This year's Cheltenham Gold Cup is a fascinating renewal, and a very challenging puzzle. Although a couple of pieces are still missing as I write, it is hard to envisage a significant shake up in the betting from either the Irish Gold Cup or the Denman Chase.
The biggest market move is likely to be when Ruby Walsh nails his colours to the mast of either Vautour or Djakadam. If I were him, I'd probably side with Djakadam whose stamina is proven; but Vautour probably feels like a Porsche to Djakadam's Range Rover on the gallops at home.
In any case, of the top order, the value - such as it is at this stage - might just be with Don Poli. He's done little wrong and his run style may have allowed him to be under-rated somewhat. Ground, trip, and track pose no problem so, as I wrote in the main body of the piece, the question is purely one of ability. I don't mind taking a small chip at 6/1 to find out.
Very similar comments apply to Smad Place, who has been reborn this term and may not have bottomed out his own improvement yet. The shadow cast by his earlier career form may be holding his price down and, if that's right, there's a whiff of a bargain even at his now 12/1 price. Of course, if you bagged 20's or 16's since the weekend, good show.
It might be worth having a tiny each way tickle on either Many Clouds (could run into the frame if running into the race en route to Aintree, cash back if no show) or Carlingford Lough (feels like a bet to nothing with NRNB), but I couldn't 'officially' - whatever the hell that means - nominate them here.
The 2016 Gold Cup is a very hard race to call and, if you want to bet one of the top of the market, you may be best off waiting for the day, when bookies will surely go 6/1 or 7/1 bar Ruby's mount. If it comes up soft, I can see Smad Place shortening into single figures.
Having backed Smad Place at 16/1 (small money) after his Saturday win, I think there's still a dribble of upside at 12's, and Don Poli is my pick of the quintet heading the betting.
Two very timid picks in the Timico Gold Cup.
Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Selection
0.5 pt win Don Poli 6/1 bet365, 888sport, Hills, 32 Red (all NRNB)
0.25 pts e/w Smad Place 12/1 general (look for NRNB)
Other Cheltenham Festival 2016 Ante-Post Previews
All of our in-depth previews, trends and tips can be found here: