It’s Cheltenham time again, with the two-day December meeting known as The International. The action begins today, with the showpiece Caspian Caviar Gold Cup taking place tomorrow.
As always, the prestigious handicap has attracted a classy looking field, with Britain’s elite trainers well represented. The ‘December Gold Cup’ was first run in 1963, and has gone to several outstanding racehorses over the years. Pendil was successful in 1973, the year he won his second King George. Trained by Fred Winter, he was arguably the greatest horse never to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Fondmort was a Prestbury Park regular, and won this race back in 2002. Trained by Nicky Henderson, he became one of the most popular horses in training, finally winning at the Cheltenham Festival in 2006 at the grand old age of 10, having finished placed in his three previous festivals. His famous victory in the Ryanair is a personal favourite of mine. The way he travelled and jumped that day was something special. He then had to show tremendous courage to hold off the late challenge of Lacdoudal and Impek up the famous hill. It was everything Jump racing aspires to be, and more; true sporting theatre.
The December Gold Cup winner of 2006 was another terrific chaser, who found himself up against Jump racing giants during his illustrious career. Exotic Dancer was trained by Jonjo O’Neill, and had won the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham a month earlier. His rise to the top was swift, though the number one spot was already taken, by a certain Kauto Star. Jonjo’s fella came second to Nicholls’ hero in the King George that year, before filling the same spot in the Gold Cup the following March. He was to see Kauto’s rear-end on countless other occasions, during his all-to-brief career.
The Caspian Caviar Gold Cup often goes to one of the premier trainers. Hobbs, Henderson and Nicholls have won the lion’s share in recent times. Team Ditcheat have took three of the last seven, whilst Seven Barrows have three victories since 2002. Philip Hobbs won last year’s renewal, and was successful back in 2004, thanks to Monkerhostin.
Those same protagonists have strong looking contenders this time around, especially Nicholls and Hobbs.
Though Addlington Boy was the last top-weight to take the race back in 1996, that shouldn’t put people off from fancying those from the top end of the handicap. Five horses have carried 11st 4lbs or more to victory in the last 10 years.
That will give hope to fans of the Hobbs trained Village Vic, who looks to emulate Poquelin in winning this two years on the trot. He’s rated a stonking 22lbs higher than when successful 12 months ago, though only just failed to land the BetVictor Gold Cup (formerly Paddy Power) a month back. Nine-year-olds have a poor recent record in the race, but I’d be surprised if this fella wasn’t there or thereabouts. His aggressive running style will have the field stretched from some way out, and it’s then a case of hanging on.
With just 2lb less to haul around Prestbury Park, the Kerry Lee trained Kylemore Lough also looks to have an outstanding chance of lifting the coveted prize. The seven-year-old ran a cracker on his return to action, when just touched off at Ascot in the Grade 2 Stella Artois. He was running on strongly at the line, and Cheltenham’s stiff finish ought to suit. It’s fair to say that he lacks handicap experience, but his chase record is impressive, with five wins from seven. His age group have a great record in the race, and he has just the right amount of experience over fences to tick off another trend box.
Paul Nicholls’ duo are aged four and five, which on a trends basis is undoubtedly a negative. Only two horses from that age group have been successful in the races history. Bouvreuil looks to be his best hope, and ran well last time when fifth in the BetVictor Gold Cup. He has a little to find with some of these, but should strip fitter this time. His jumping can be ‘sticky’ at times, and it will be severely tested here. Nevertheless, he’s without doubt a player, and has the advantage of having Barry Geraghty in the plate.
Aso finished one place ahead of Bouvreuil at Cheltenham last time, and looks likely to go close again. Rain would possibly help his cause, and his jumping would also be a cause for concern. A mistake two from home cost him dear last time, but he also should be fitter for that run, and must have a great chance on Saturday.
Finally, a mention for the Tizzard trained Quite By Chance. The trainer can do no wrong, and he has his horses flying this winter. This fella has undoubtedly improved, and ran a terrific race at Ascot last time, when chasing home Sire De Grugy. This step-up in trip may well be in his favour, and though he’s probably a better horse going right-handed, his run last time makes him a huge player here.
Rarely can I remember a handicap of this nature, where the top weights appear to have such an outstanding chance. I fancy that both Village Vic and Kylemore Lough will go close, with Aso a lively contender from lower down the handicap. I’m just about favouring Kerry Lee’s fella to nick it from Hobbs’ top weight, though I expect it to be tight.