News came last night that Sizing John would not be defending his Gold Cup crown.
As the bombshell dropped, I was in the process of writing how surprisingly rare it is that horses complete back-to-back victories in the ‘Blue Riband’. Keeping these equine stars fit and well is an incredibly difficult task. Getting them on the racecourse year-in year-out is hard enough, but training the equine elite to maintain such a high level of performance is quite something else. Along with Sizing John, the likes of Faugheen, Douvan and Thistlecrack are just a few names that instantly spring to mind.
Though Harrington will clearly be gutted at the untimely injury to her Gold Cup hero, it does mean that jockey Robbie Power will now be reunited with stable companion Our Duke. The partnership landed the Irish National back in April but occasional jumping errors since his return from a back operation have been a source of concern for those siding with the giant chaser, as he heads for his greatest challenge to date at Prestbury Park. Power is surely best placed to get the most from Our Duke, and that may well prove to be enough for a horse that looks tailor-made for the job that lies ahead.
Might Bite heads the market following success in the RSA last year and a somewhat underwhelming victory in the King George. Turning for home at Kempton, the eight-year-old pulled clear of the pack and looked sure to romp to an impressive winning performance. But at the line he had just a length to spare over Double Shuffle with a further two back to Tea For Three. Henderson’s talented chaser may well win the Gold Cup next week, but his inability to focus throughout the race, from the fall of the flag to the finish, may yet prove his downfall. Better horses than Whisper, Double Shuffle and Tea For Three will be waiting to pounce, should he take his eye of the prize.
Native River will ensure that the contenders stamina is fully tested. Richard Johnson will set the fractions, firing the gutsy eight-year-old at every fence as he attempts to mirror a Coneygree style performance. Tizzard’s contender has had this race as his sole target this season, and as such, will arrive a fresh horse. He ran a cracker in finishing third a year ago, when arguably not ridden aggressively enough. Sizing John had the gears, and enough left in the tank to use them. It will be down to Johnson to ensure that the sting is drawn from the chasing pack, in much the same way as Sam Spinner in Thursday’s Stayers’ Hurdle. He looks sure to go close.
Road To Respect won the Brown Advisory Handicap at last year’s Festival, and has continued on a steep upward curve throughout this campaign. He took the Leopardstown Christmas Chase (formerly the Lexus) defeating Balko Des Flos and Outlander, though several leading contenders underperformed that day. Off the track since, the lack of a prep-run is a slight concern. He’s a second-season chaser, clearly on the upgrade, and therefore ticks plenty of boxes for trend followers. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that he’s ‘the one’ and am far from certain that he’s robust enough for this extended trip with that infamous concluding climb.
The joker in the pack is the Willie Mullins-trained Killultagh Vic. He looked likely to win the Irish Gold Cup when falling at the last. Such jumping errors must be a huge concern for a horse with so little chasing experience. Despite being a nine-year-old, he’s only had three races over fences. It’s testament to how highly he’s regarded that he’s fourth favourite at 10/1, and he does have a Festival success to his name, having won the Martin Pipe Hurdle back in 2015. Three years have passed, and in that period, he’s only been on the racecourse five times. If he wins we will all marvel at the training prowess of Willie Mullins coupled with the incredible talent of the horse. However, trend followers will say that he can’t win, and I’m prepared to go with them.
One that will outrun his odds is Minella Rocco. Runner-up last year and winner of the four-miler in 2016, this fella thrives at Cheltenham in March. He’ll likely be outpaced at some stage prior to charging up the hill when others cry enough. As Native River’s tank starts to read empty and Might Bite drifts across the track to inspect the Guinness Village, Jonjo’s fella will be making his move. I’m sure he’ll go close.
Gold Cup winners rarely stagger over the finishing line, rather, they charge up the hill devouring the Cheltenham turf, out-staying and over-powering their opponents. In the absence of Sizing John, I’m convinced that Our Duke has what it takes to complete back-to-back victories for Jess Harrington. At 25s, the each-way money will be lumped on Minella Rocco.
Expect the unexpected in this ‘anything could happen’ renewal. Best of luck to those having a punt.