The very best staying chasers went into battle over the last few days and as a result the Gold Cup market has now started to take shape.
Noel Meade had a Festival winner in March with novice hurdler Very Wood, and he must now be dreaming of a career best win after the Lexus Chase went to his progressive Road To Riches.
His new star chaser won the Galway Plate back in July before taking the Grade 1 JNwine.com Champion Chase in November. His meteoric rise towards the top continued yesterday when he stayed on strongly to win at Leopardstown, in ground thought to be plenty soft enough.
Usually forcing the issue from the front, he found it impossible to dominate on such a testing surface, instead taking a lead from the Gold Cup runner-up On His Own. However, driven to challenge at the last he found plenty for pressure and was pulling away at the finish. It was yet another terrific ride from Gigginstown’s number one, Bryan Cooper. Once again he read the race perfectly, ensuring that his horse maintained a prominent position, without forcing him out of his comfort zone.
On His Own again ran with great credit, proving that his performance at Cheltenham was no fluke. He’ll be an 11-year-old when attempting to go one place better in March yet he looks a fair each-way proposition at 20/1.
Paul Nicholls has a great record in the Lexus and Sam Winner held every chance approaching the last. Not unlike Road To Riches, Nicholls’ seven-year-old has taken his form this season to a new level. He’s a strong stayer who possibly lacks the gears to win at the very highest level. Thought to be a Grand National type, it would be no surprise if his trainer allowed him to take his chance at the Festival, especially if the ground comes up soft.
A mistake at the third last appeared to put Boston Bob on the back foot and although he threw down a challenge at the last, he never quite got on terms with the leaders. It’s possible that the likely better ground in March will help his chances in the ‘big one’, but his tendency to make a jumping error at crucial times has to be a major worry.
Gold Cup winners Lord Windermere and Bobs Worth were both disappointing. The former ran a similar race in testing ground last year, and can probably be forgiven this poor performance. Nicky Henderson’s former champion is more of a worry. He ran flat and never got into the race. Geraghty blamed the ground, yet he won the Lexus on similar just last year. If he now needs decent ground, what happened to him at Cheltenham in March? He has the look of a horse in decline, though his record at the Festival remains cause for hope. He is five from six at the track.
Visually it has to be said that Silviniaco’s win in the King George at Kempton appeared far more impressive. He lies clear at the head of the Gold Cup market and is generally accepted by those ‘in the know’ to be the best staying chaser around. However, he’s yet to win at Cheltenham, and has failed in the last two attempts at the ‘Blue Riband’.
Kempton on Boxing Day is a very different test to Cheltenham in March. Slick jumping at speed with an emphasis on maintaining a high tempo throughout the three miles definitely differs from Prestbury Park’s likely more even gallop followed by an increase in pace sweeping downhill, before that stamina-busting slog up the famous hill to the finish.
Of course many King George winners have gone on to Gold Cup success, but it’s certainly no given. In behind Silviniaco Conti the other day, were several that look more likely to be aimed at the Ryanair Chase in March. Dynaste and Cue Card have both won that race at the Festival, while Champagne Fever and Johns Spirit could also line up this time round. Al Ferof may even step back further in trip, with Paul Nicholls talking of the Champion Chase as a possible target.
All this only goes to prove the differing requirements of a horse in the Lexus and the King George. Only time will tell which of the two great Christmas chases gave us the most clues going forward to this year’s Gold Cup.