The Cheltenham Gold Cup has become the showpiece of the Cheltenham Festival and is the fourth race of final day. It wasn’t however, always held in such high regard. Initially a flat race over three miles, it wasn’t till over a hundred years later that the race was run over fences, and for a prize fund of £700. Then, considered as a meager prep race for the Grand National, this race has gone on to offer up some truly unforgettable moments that have helped to leave that tag, long gone; Between Golden Miller’s five timer in the 1930’s, and Kauto’s demolition job last year, the race has witnessed the legendary Arkle, win three Gold Cup’s, including that famous battle with Mill House, and, saw the Irish Mare, Dawn Run, becoming the only horse to win both a Champion Hurdle and a Gold Cup. The late great Dessie battled through the mud and rain of ’89 to victory, and of course, who could forget Best Mate’s quite unbelievable treble in ’02, ’03, and ’04.
But it’s not just equine feats of the Gold Cup that have gone down in racing history; in 1983, Michael Dickinson trainer the first five home, a truly unbelievable achievement.
Open to horses 5 years of age and upwards, run over three miles and two and a half furlongs (roughly) and worth £475,000, the pace of the race is often more equivalent to a two and half mile contest, placing a greater emphasis on stamina. Yet horses must have the speed to stay in contention and be able to jump at said pace, making it the ultimate challenge. With that in mind, let’s take a look through the main contenders of this year’s field.
Firstly, I am not a person who takes much interest in trends but even the most naïve of gamblers must know you can’t preview the Cheltenham Festival without outlining the key trends associated with each race. With that in mind:
Since 1969, no horse older than 10 has emerged victorious.
15 of the last 16 winners were aged between 7 and 9.
8 of the last 9 winners went into the race with a rating higher than 165.
10 of the last 12 winners had previously placed at the festival.
20 of the last 22 winners finished in the top four of their previous outing.
It’s quite difficult for me to write this year’s Gold Cup preview. I have always been a huge flat racing fan and for quite a while, I had no interest in the NH side of the game at all. The horse responsible for changing that was Exotic Dancer, still the only jumps horse I have really taken to heart. Having supported him, sometimes heart ruling head, in every race he ran in, it feels very odd looking at the Gold Cup field this year knowing he won’t be my automatic selection, and his tragic absence is a loss to this years field.
That said, this years renewal is a heavyweight clash of the highest order, between the two Paul Nicholls trained Gold Cup winners, Kauto Star and Denman. The duo will be joined by last years RSA Chase conqueror, and last years RyanAir Chase winner along side a former RyanAir Chase victor, and the horse successful in this years Lexus Chase, the later two, hoping to give trainer Nicholls a possible first four home.
Village Star (FR) – Kauto Relka (FR) (Port Etienne (FR)
Notes: Winner in ’07, and after defeat to Denman in ’08 when not at his best, he regained his crown last year in truly awesome style. Started this season with the narrowest of victories in the Betfair Chase, where coming out on top in a photo finish against Imperial Commander before putting up probably his best performance yet when winning his fourth King George at Kempton by an absolute country mile. Victorious at two miles, all the way up to this trip, that awesome King George demolition job franked the view that many believe; that he is the best chaser ever. Though I would still have to side with Arkle on that front, there is no doubt a third Gold Cup beckons and I fully expect him to achieve it.
Presenting (UK) – Polly Puttens (UK) (Pollerton (UK)
Notes: ‘The Tank’ won 12 of his first 13 starts for Nicholls to set up the first Gold Cup duel with Kauto Star in ’08, including a facile RSA win and an outstanding top weight performance in the Hennessey. Went on to run his opposition ragged in the Gold Cup under Sam Thomas, though a serious heart condition followed and there were doubts if he would be able to return the same animal. Defeat to Madison Du Berlais in the Levy Board Chase on his long awaited return, was followed by a solid second place finish to Kauto Star in last years Gold Cup. Things went from bad to worse as he then crashed out horribly two from home in the Totesport Bowl at Aintree, but fears were averted as he wasn’t as seriously injured as first thought. Returning this season, in the Hennessey, the old Denman was well and truly back. He smashed his opposition to pieces in one of the greatest weight carrying performances in history. However, with Sam Thomas no longer a considered partner, and his Hennessey jockey due to partner Kauto in the big one, McCoy took the ride on Denman in the Aon Chase, a preparation for their partnership in the Gold Cup. It did not go well. Denman went from traveling strongly, to looking tired, and blundered badly four from home before crashing out at the next. His odds have risen markedly since and although he and McCoy will do a lot of schooling to try and strengthen their partnership, questions remain both about the horse, his jumping and if A P McCoy’s style of riding is suited to him.
Beneficial (UK) – Shean Alainn (IRE) (Le Moss (UK)
Notes: Smart hurdler who looked just as good when sent chasing, beating Forpaddytheplasterer in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown before powering clear in the RSA Chase, at last years Festival. Left some smart horses in his wake that day, but likely still feeling the effects of that effort when a well beaten fourth in the Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown six weeks later. Went off a well backed favourite in the Lexus Chase on his seasonal return but was never sighted and pulled up some way from home. Reportedly suffering from an infection and in need of the run, that performance best written off. He then ran in the Irish Hennessey, but despite being out battled close home by Joncol, he put in a much more hopeful performance. I’ve never been a big fan of this horse and I just can’t see him getting remotely close to the front two, if on their game, nor do I think he has a clear chance of squeaking third so at the prices, I’ll well and truly dismiss him.
Flemensfirth (USA) – Ballinlovane (IRE) (Le Moss (IRE)
Nigel Twiston- Davies
Notes: Five wins from nine runs round Cheltenham, the latest a success in last years RyanAir Chase, but followed that by being pulled up in the Punchestown Gold Cup. Stamina was doubted at this trip, but put those doubts to bed when a somewhat unlucky second to Kauto Star in the Betfair Chase at the start of the season (unlucky in the sense that it looked at the time like he had at the very least, not lost, if not won outright). However a shocking jump at the second in the King George put pay to his chances, if he ever actually had any with Kauto at his awesome best, and although he did well enough to plug on for fifth, I don’t see him getting anywhere as near to Kauto Star as he did at Haydock, even with a clear round.
Mansonnien (FR) – Vikosa (FR) (Nikos (UK)
Notes: Smart chaser victorious here in ’07 when winning the RyanAir Chase. Three wins and one placed effort from five runs at Cheltenham, including his comeback win here in January after just over two years absent due to a serious leg injury. Bounce factor a possible concern but he appeals at the prices for an each way nibble.
Taranis has suffered a setback and has been ruled out of the race – 03.03.2010
What A Friend
Alflora (IRE) – Friendly Lady (UK) (New Member (UK)
Notes: Looked a promising horse last year and ran a solid sixth behind Cooldine in the RSA Chase. Looked at one point like he was coming to win the Hennessey but found Denman too strong, before holding off the fast finishing Money Trix in the rearranged Lexus Chase. Joncol, the third that day franked the form since, though Money Trix disappointed in the same race and the discrepancy in odds available for him, 14/1 right up to 40/1, show his chances of participation are in doubt. Although the top end of those odds are interesting with NRMB, I prefer one or two others for the each way angle.
Tricky Trickster won the Challenge Cup at last years Festival and having moved to Paul Nicholls since, has headed the betting market for the Grand National. Got up in the dying strides to beat Niche Market after Denman’s fall in the Aon Chase but likely to have a more realistic challenge awaiting him in April.
Carruthers is a decent enough chaser but has always looked a grade shy of the top level and will do well to make the front six positions, while Madison Du Berlais has yet to recapture the form that saw him win three times last season and has failed to run anywhere near his best in seven previous attempts at Cheltenham, should he even turn up.
With Denman and Kauto Star both at one win a piece against each other, both have, to some degree, had valid health or fitness excuses when defeated in their head to heads here. This year, the hope was that both would turn up, ready to rock, excuse free, and go to war with the best horse triumphant. However, after the Aon Chase, I’m not sure that will be the case, and I am sure, Denmaniacs will insist not, should their horse lose.
Though arguably since the Aon, Denman has now become the value of the race, I wouldn’t have sided with him prior to his spill last time out, and with the additional question marks arising, I am even more confident KAUTO STAR will land his third Gold Cup.
With a view to an each way bet, and with possibly the second and third spots available should Denman’s jumping errors continue, though I don’t expect they will, I shall side with Taranis. He returned in style from a long lay off and in doing so bolstered his good record round Cheltenham. At more than double the odds of both Cooldine and Imperial Commander, I think he is the better bet, as, for me, the two mentioned aren’t twice as likely to finish ahead of him, when credentials are compared and considered.