Cheltenham Gold Cup 2019: Preview, Trends, Tips
The highlight in a week of highlights at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival is the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup. New sponsor, maybe, but it's the same refreshing taste to a race which demands all of class, stamina, a touch of speed and bottomless determination: the Gold Cup truly is a Championship race in every sense of the phrase.
With little more than a week to go, all of the form is in the book and all of the racecourse gallops (sigh) are complete. There is still time for late defections, but non-runner no bet is virtually ubiquitous at this stage meaning we may bet with confidence of a run or a refund; being confident about the subject of one's wager is an altogether more precarious proposition...
2019 Gold Cup Trends
Some people love 'em, some people hate 'em. Me? I think trends are extremely useful in whittling fields, though of course one should never visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons - or, in plain English, assume one of this year's field will fail because members of previous renewals did.
For example, in the run up to last year's Festival I wrote a piece called 'Avoiding the Bad Bets', which I've updated here for 2019. One of the key points in relation to open Grade 1's at the Festival - such as the Gold Cup for example - was that only one of 94 horses to have sported blinkers or cheekpieces in these races had managed to win in the previous decade. And then Native River went and donned the 'cheekies' to magnificent effect to fend off a spirited challenge from Might Bite in a duel that lasted for pretty much the entire three miles two and a half furlongs of the race.
It's worth contextualising that with the fact that Native River had already been similarly accoutred when winning a Grade 1 at the Aintree Festival, and when winning the Hennessy, and when winning the Welsh National, and when winning two Denman Chases; also, when running third in the previous year's Gold Cup.
So let's not get too wedded to trends, particularly when the individual horse in question has demonstrated beyond doubt its ability to flout said historical pattern. But, at the same time, we ought to allow history to frame our understanding of the future: after all, it is better than anything else we have available to us and is used as the basis of just about every forecasting medium on the planet.
Cheltenham Gold Cup Age Trends
Reverting to the 'avoiding the bad bets' post I am reminded that no horse older than ten has won any open Grade 1 in the past eleven years. In the Gold Cup, that run goes back to 1969 when What A Myth scored at the ripe old vintage of twelve. Good luck then if you fancy eleven-year-old Thistlecrack, who doesn't bring as compelling a case to the table as the similarly aged Cue Card did two years ago. That one, like the other 33 horses aged 11+ to contest this race since 1997, was turned away. Indeed, during that time only four horses have managed to make the frame, all of them formidable names in the staying chase ranks: Barton Bank, See More Business, Kauto Star and Denman. If those chaps couldn't get it done, the Thistlecracker won't either, gorgeous beast that he is all the same.
Ten year olds used to have a very good record: from 1973, when The Dikler won, to Cool Dawn in 1998, six 10yo's came home in front. But the nature of National Hunt racing has changed since then, with a fashion for earlier precocity manifesting in the expensive acquisition of French imports or Irish maiden point winners trained to the minute to get the job done between the flags.
Thus, all Gold Cup contenders aged in double digits since Cool Dawn in 1998 have been beaten. Go Ballistic was a gallant second in 1999, as was Hedgehunter in 2006, and On His Own in that weird (and sub-standard) Gold Cup of 2014. But an overall record of 0 from 75 since 2009 is hard to overlook.
That brings in Might Bite, who has looked regressive this term; and also the likes of Killultagh Vic and Definitly Red should they line up. A few have hit the board as I've mentioned, so fair play and good luck if you want to wager one each way, but they are not for me.
At the other end of the spectrum, only the uber-precocious Long Run has won a Gold Cup at age six since Mill House in 1963. Not many have tried, it should be said, and actually Djakadam was second in 2015.
Cheltenham Gold Cup Odds Trends
This is a tricky one, and the people who don't like trends tend especially to not like price-related trends. Fair enough, though these days shocks are rare. Lord Windermere won the aforementioned weird Gold Cup of 2014, where Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti both veered violently across the track handing the podium to a trio of plodders. The good Lord was a 20/1 chance and saved a wretched Chelto for this scribe in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Aside from that charmed run, those priced bigger than 8/1 have not had a sniff this century. The average winning odds since 1999 have been a little over 5/1 only. Now it should be said that the three winners prior to 1999 were 16/1, 25/1 and 20/1 but, again, it was a quite different race back then.
Prices will shorten and lengthen between now and next Friday but we probably ought not to be looking too far down the lists for a 'dark horse'.
Cheltenham Gold Cup Trainer Trends
Let's get contentious, if we've not been already. There are some high profile trainers with very middling Gold Cup records, most notably the bloke who has won more Festival races than any other: Willie Mullins. Mullins has run 22 horses in the Gold Cup, and it started so promisingly with Florida Pearl finishing third then second at the turn of the century. Since then, however, it's been a tale of woe with no little crossbar-rattling along the way.
Whilst it would be impossible to discount the Irish perma-champ from claiming a maiden GC victory, six seconds and no wins is a frustrating record at best. Last year, WPM entered four and they finished PFF5. Those F's are becoming a 'thing' as Tony Keenan alluded to in his recent piece, and additional scrutiny will be in place this year as a result of the Cheltenham Review and its findings/recommendations. The master of Closutton is responsible for three of the first seven in the betting at time of writing.
Paul Nicholls has the tentative Gold Cup favourite, Clan Des Obeaux, and his overall record in the race is impeccable: four wins from 32 runners since See More Business in 1999. But those four wins were concluded by Kauto Star in 2009 and another decade has passed, marked only by the two subsequent second places of Denman from 16 starters. It may be only partially correct to say that he has had no ammunition in the interim: Kauto Star fell when odds on in 2010, Denman and Kauto again were in single figure prices when placed thrice between them, Kauto again was 3/1 when pulled up in 2012, and Silviniaco Conti was out of the frame three times at 4/1 or shorter in 2013-15.
It's not a massive body of evidence, granted, and it's the same faces repeating the same feats, but it does make one mull the inherent value in the 7/2 quote about Clan Des Obeaux. We'll review his form claims anon.
The man for the last decade has been Nicky Henderson. His two winners during that time (Long Run and Bobs Worth) have been supplemented by three further places (Long Run twice and Might Bite) as well as a fourth from Burton Port. Notably, that haul has been amassed from just ten total runners in the race. Unless joined by the six-year-old Terrefort, Might Bite looks Seven Barrows' only entry this time, though perhaps Santini is waiting in the wings for the 2020 renewal.
2019 Gold Cup Form Preview
If the trends nudge and wink us one way or another through the field, the form book should be our primary port of call in search of the 2019 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner. Let's take them in approximate market order.
Clan Des Obeaux heads most lists at around 7/2, Paul Nicholls' seven-year-old looking progressive on flat tracks this term. Since running third to Might Bite in the Aintree Bowl last April, he's run close to Bristol De Mai in the Betfair Chase at Haydock (Thistlecrack and Native River also in front of him), and then won the King George and Denman Chase.
Those are recognised trials for the Blue Riband so it would be unfair to suggest he doesn't deserve his market rank. Equally, it would be remiss not to flag the unanswered questions. Cheltenham form is one: his track record is 2622. He's run well enough in defeat, but he's not won yet at the track. The first two figures were over hurdles, the '6' recorded in the Triumph Hurdle, his only Cheltenham Festival run prior to this tilt.
Rated 157 for his Aintree Bowl third his mark now is 173, an inflation almost entirely due to that King George performance. But I wonder how resilient the Kempton form line is to cross-examination in the context of a Gold Cup? A close second was the now eleven-year-old Thistlecrack, a horse with the speed to have won a World Hurdle. Two of the six single-figure prices in the race came down - Bristol De Mai fell, bringing down Waiting Patiently - and another, Might Bite, patently failed to show his form, trailing the seven to complete.
Politologue, sent off 5/1, ran a solid enough race but has known limitations and is probably a 160 horse on balance: he has an official rating of 166 but his recent performance figures from the BHA (i.e. what he's run to in races) are 160, 156, 164, 168, 151, 160, 160, 161.
Native River was third, hopelessly outpaced and staying on into bronze from an impossible position. He was, as commentator Simon Holt related, "on his head the whole way round". Clan Des Obeaux was elevated nigh on a stone for that run. Again, his performance figures read (most recent first) - 166, 173, 164, 159, 155, 155, 155. So, while it possible to say he's a 173 horse - because he's apparently run to that mark - it is a seven pound outlier with the balance of his form. He did not improve again to win the Denman and he probably has to run to that top career figure in a much stiffer stamina test to win the Gold Cup. He could do that, but 7/2 is short enough.
The RSA Chase winner of last year, Presenting Percy, is a tough one to peg. He was very good there, running to a BHA performance figure of 165. It would not require a leap of faith to anticipate a progression of seven pounds from novice year to second season chase year which gives Percy the class projection for the gig. But... he's been seen only once since that RSA victory, and that sole public sighting was in a hurdle race, the Galmoy Hurdle at his beloved Gowran Park.
There, he beat a reasonable field of Grade 2 hurdlers narrowly: he was only two lengths in front of the fourth home. That doesn't tell the whole story, as Davy Russell rode him 'cold' at the back of the field and came with a winning run at the right moment. Moreover, he can be expected to have been less than fully wound up there - he was beaten in his RSA Chase prep after all - so the run can be marked up.
The thing is that it needs to be marked up significantly, because it was probably only worth a rating of low to middle 150's, a stone and a half shy of the required Gold Cup level. Presenting Percy has since schooled and galloped at Galway, but that ain't a race, is it? He makes for an interesting contender, especially given the likes of Native River race from the front and he'll try to close from the rear, but he's short enough at 4/1 on what we've (not) seen of him this season.
The third and final horse currently at a single figure price is Native River, the reigning champion. He is a superstar of a horse, with a CV that includes a Hennessy, a Welsh National, a Gold Cup third and a Gold Cup win as well as a Grade 1 novice score at Aintree. He had a hard race in the Gold Cup last year when he and Might Bite had at it from the outset, and that has been attributed by some to his beaten brace of spins this term.
Looking more closely at them perhaps relates a different story. He ran a close second to Bristol de Mai in the Betfair Chase at Bristoldemaidock on his seasonal bow, an effort that earned him a 170 performance rating. That was backing up the 173 he ran to in the Gold Cup. Since then he ostensibly clunked at Kempton, that fairly remote third worth a figure of 160.
But Kempton is not the track for a relentless galloper like Native River. On his sole prior Sunbury spin, as a novice, he achieved a performance rating of 143. Notably, that figure was sandwiched between a 149 and a 152 at more galloping tracks. It would be a surprise to me if Colin Tizzard's nine-year-old doesn't run to around 170 and an even bigger surprise if that is not good enough to make the frame. Whether it's enough to win, or whether he can get to the 173 he recorded last year, I don't know. But 6/1 looks a pretty robust each way play on form, maybe more so when you consider that his chase record is 15 runs, 8 wins, 2 seconds and 5 thirds.
The first of the Willie Mullins squad is Kemboy, at around 10/1 currently. He has some similarities with Clan Des Obeaux: both are seven, both came over from France having run over a mile and a half, and both have improved rapidly recently. The switch to fencing has been the making of Kemboy; he was nothing special over timber but has transformed into a Grade 1 scorer in open company this term.
He rocks up at the Festival in search of a five-timer, having progressed from a Grade 3 at Limerick, where he beat the classy but horribly unreliable Tombstone, to a comfortable score over proven G1 chaser, Monalee, in the Savills Chase (Lexus as was) at Christmas. That was three miles on good ground, and it was easily his most taking effort to date.
Here he'll have to go further and in deeper competition, and he'll have to improve on a Festival record which comprises fifth in the Neptune and fourth in the JLT. It may be that he was made for the greater stamina test, and he deserves his place in the line up, but I have my doubts. He doesn't jump great - though he does seem to generally get from A to B - and he has still not achieved as much as the likes of Bellshill and Road To Respect, according to the Irish handicapper at least. The time of the Savills was slow and he has yet to run an especially fast time; in a race where we pretty much know Native River goes on, he's a bit to prove on the clock. That expected faster pace will also put additional strain on his jumping.
What to make of the ten-year-old Might Bite? Impressive winner of the 2017 RSA Chase and the King George of the same year (but the following season), he travelled like the winner in the 2018 Gold Cup before being ruthlessly outstayed by Native River. The River was going on at the finish, and Might Bite looks the one of the pair to have been regressive since. Exhibit A is the 29 length last of five in the Betfair Chase where he barely jumped a fence; Exhibit B is the 37 length seventh of seven finishers in the King George, a race he'd won a year earlier. He simply cannot be considered as a credible wager on recent form.
Road To Respect is an interesting one. On the face of it he failed to stay last year, jumping and travelling beautifully into the race before finding little in the straight. But that was on deep ground in a race run relentlessly from start to finish. It's possible that both of those eventualities come to pass again but, if the forecast is wet, R2R surely goes for the shorter Ryanair Chase. That makes non-runner no bet an interesting proposition if the rest of the case stands up.
Noel Meade's eight-year-old ran a solid third in the Punchestown Gold Cup after Cheltenham, a race for which he may have been a tad over the top for the season. This term, he sauntered home in one of the softer Grade 1's, at Down Royal, before placing in both the Lexus/Savills and the Irish Gold Cup, a further pair of G1's. He got chinned on the line in that latter heat adding substance to the notion that he perhaps doesn't see out the trip. So, with rain now appearing in Britain for what feels like the first time since Noah de-commissioned his ark, the snide 'run or refund' option has diminishing appeal.
A brace of Mullins last day winners come next in the market, Al Boum Photo and Bellshill both showing up at around the 14/1 to 16/1 mark. The latter is possibly more interesting: he's a strong stayer who was fifth in the Irish National before winning the Punchestown Gold Cup last term, and it was this asset that saw him wrest the Irish Gold Cup from Road To Respect last time. As the joint highest rated chaser in Ireland (169, along with Presenting Percy and Road To Respect), he looks a dab of value at 14's, especially if/when the books offer four places in this race as at least some of them surely will.
Al Boum Photo's record is more patchy and has less 'Gold Cup' wins on it. When he's good - as in the Fairyhouse Grade 1 in which he beat Monalee, and in the Punchestown Grade 1 when rider error prevented victory - he's very good; but he's fallen in two of his last six chases, including in his only Cheltenham visit in last season's RSA and he still has to prove his stamina. Bellshill in a match bet all day long for me.
Thistlecrack is just a no, for reasons outlined above: eleven years old, doubtful stamina and, well, that's more than enough. Love him, wouldn't back him with your money.
And then we're into the 25/1 bar territory. I've backed Anibale Fly, almost certainly due to a mental weak spot based on his third in the race last year. He's a strong stayer who followed up his Gold Cup bronze with fourth in the Grand National. The truth is that, while he may be in the first six and looks a fair spread play in such a context, he probably can't win and perhaps isn't a fantastic place bet either. Feels like a bit of a sucker punt on my part, though he could surprise.
Frodon surely won't stay, Elegant Escape will stay but probably lacks the class, Monalee should go a shorter route though isn't a no-hoper non-runner no bet, and Balko Des Flos wouldn't be the worst 33/1 NRNB guess though hasn't shown anything since a comfy score in the Ryanair last season and probably won't stay.
2019 Gold Cup Tips
If you've read the above form analysis, you'll know that I think Native River is the best value bet in the race. His runs this season have been better than the bare form suggests, and he is proven under all conditions. 6/1 looks at least a point and a half too big in a race which perhaps lacks the depth the current market implies.
I don't think Clan Des Obeaux is good enough, though he might be able to step forward again - he'll need to as I suspect that King George rating flatters him in this more exacting context. Presenting Percy is impossible to quantify, though his Cheltenham Festival record of 11 needs little embellishment. He can certainly win the race but off what is at best an unconventional prep, and at worst an undesirable one, he's plenty short for my tastes.
Reservations about Kemboy's jumping lead me away from him in favour of stablemate Bellshill as the pick of bigger priced realistic alternatives. He's arguably a little on the slow side, but his form in 'Gold Cup' races - Punchestown and Leopardstown versions rather than Cheltenham - puts him in the frame. He jumps well, stays very well, and handles any ground. 14/1 NRNB with Unibet offers some appeal.
2019 Magners Gold Cup Selection: Native River e/w at 6/1 NRNB 888sport, Betfair Sports
Bigger priced alternative: Bellshill e/w at 14/1 NRNB Unibet