With just 25 days to go until “the roar” as the tapes go up for the Supreme Novices Hurdle signalling the start of the 2013 Cheltenham Festival, we will witness reputations shattered and new stars emerging throughout the week, but whilst all that is ongoing tensions will be building as we look towards the pinnacle of the National Hunt sphere, the Blue Riband of jump-racing the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Sadly last year’s winner Synchronised will be unable to attempt to defend his crown having sadly died in a fall in the Grand National on his next start. This year also signals the end of an era in that it will be the first time since 2007 that the legendary Kauto Star hasn’t lined up for the Gold Cup having been a runner in the last six renewals, winning twice and placing twice.
The sight of Kauto Star and Denman going toe-to-toe turning for home in the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup still brings shivers up my spine to this day. For a split second it just looked possible that these two old warriors of the turf would have one last hurrah on the big stage, I remember to this day roaring the pair of them on like I can imagine many up the length and breadth of the country doing exactly the same. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be and Long Run swooped at the last and had too much run in his legs up the run-in to draw away from the defiant Denman who went out on his shield in second, with Kauto a further 4 lengths away exhausted in third.
2012 was expected to be the year in which Long Run dominated the staying chase division and was a short price from the outset to retain his crown that year. However reversals at the hands of ‘The King’ Kauto Star in both the Betfair Chase and King George suggested perhaps the old boy had one more big one in him, and all of a sudden the once seemingly bullet-proof Long Run who looked so imperious the previous March began to look vulnerable. Sadly the fairytale ending wasn’t to be for Kauto Star and he was pulled up before the tenth, handing over the baton to Long Run to go and regain his crown he had won 12 months previous. In what at the time appeared to be an anti-climax to the big race, it was Synchronised who took the spoils in the show-piece of the Cheltenham Festival, outstaying the gallant The Giant Bolster on the run-in to follow-up his recent success in the Lexus Chase.
This year signals a change to the division with several newcomers to the sphere after progressing through the novice ranks. Both Long Run and Imperial Commander will between them attempt to be only the second horse in the history of the race to regain his Gold Cup crown after losing it the previous year, only Kauto Star has managed that feat and many have tried and failed.
A few key stats to be taking a look at when making a selection in this race;
12/12 winners of the Gold Cup had previously run within the last three months.
12/12 winners of the Gold Cup were aged between 6 and 9.
12/12 winners of the Gold Cup had run in that seasons King George or Lexus prior to success at Cheltenham.
12/12 winners of the Gold Cup had previously won a Grade 1 contest.
12/12 winners of the Gold Cup were in the top three in the betting.
Long Run (2011) became the first 6yo to win the Gold Cup since Mill House back in 1963.
11/12 winners of the Gold Cup were officially rated 166 or above.
Bob Back (USA) (12.3f) — Fashionista (IRE) (King´s Theatre (IRE) (11.4f))
Notes: The first thing that comes to mind with this classy staying-chaser is his love affair with Cheltenham racecourse. Over a mixture of hurdles and fences he is undefeated here in four tries, this includes victories at the last two Cheltenham Festivals in both the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle and RSA Chase, both of which were strong staying performances in the closing section of the race. On just his fifth start over fences Bobs Worth returned with an impressive success in the Hennessy Gold Cup off a mark of 160 on his first start of the campaign, and in doing so became the second highest winner of the race since at least 2000, second only to the powerhouse that is Denman. Denman won his first Hennessy off a mark of 161 after winning the RSA Chase the previous year, and similarities between the two on that performance can be drawn and although Denman won by a lot further than Bobs Worth, the Nicky Henderson trained stayer arguably faced greater opposition. Bobs Worth looks a solid favourite with a clear liking for the track and looks to have no problems whatsoever stepping up into open company at Championship level judging by his performance in the Hennessy Gold Cup last time.
Sir Des Champs
Robin Des Champs (FR) — Liste En Tete (FR) (Video Rock (FR ) (12.1f))
Notes: Another horse with a clear liking for the course, with his two visits to Cheltenham resulted in two victorious raids on the Cheltenham Festival. Albeit on a lesser scale than Bobs Worth in terms of prestige of races won, Sir Des Champs won the Martin Pipe Conditionals Hurdle in 2011 off a mark of 134, and after a fruitful novice chasing campaign returned to The Festival the following year unbeaten over the larger obstacles to readily account for his rivals in the Jewson Novices Chase. No match for the high-class Flemenstar on his comeback this season, over a trip probably short of his best and almost certainly needing the run Sir Des Champs suffered his first defeat of his career since switching to Willie Mullins. Sir Des Champs then lined up in the Lexus Chase with many expecting him to reverse form with Flemenstar over the longer distance and re-establish himself as a genuine Gold Cup contender. A series of mistakes throughout the race proved costly and although he made laboured late progress he wasn’t a match for either of Tidal Bay, First Lieutenant or Flemenstar on the day, but only went down by 0.75L in finishing fourth. February soon arrived and the pair locked horns again for the third time, but this time Sir Des Champs gained the upper-hand on the Peter Casey inmate in a workmanlike success. His jumping has come under scrutiny this campaign from plenty but I do feel he will benefit from a switch to a sounder surface at the Cheltenham Festival, where I think he’ll find it easier to jump out of better ground than the quagmires he has been encountering in Ireland this winter – and although he’ll need to improve again to win the Gold Cup you couldn’t rule him out at this stage and he appears to have every chance.
Cadoudal (FR) (18.0f) — Libertina (FR) (Balsamo (FR ))
Notes: Winner of this contest in 2011, he returns for his third run in the race and is still fairly young at the age of eight in comparison with his rivals and age trends surrounding this race. Beaten into third in last year’s Gold Cup in what at the time looked like one of the strangest races I’ve seen, and although Synchronised won’t be around to prove me wrong in that judgement, only The Giant Bolster has run anywhere near the sort of performance shown in that race and both of those runs since he has been soundly beaten by Silviniaco Conti. Long Run made his comeback at Haydock in the Betfair Chase, a race which is historically used to bring him on for the season although this time he appeared more ready than ever to begin his season by making a statement that he was back to his best form. He didn’t win but put in a very solid second to Silviniaco Conti from a less advantageous position and giving away fitness to a horse who had previously sluiced up three weeks earlier in the Charlie Hall. The son of Cadoudal then went to one of his more favoured hunting grounds in Kempton to contest the King George, a race he won emphatically in 2010 ending Kauto Star’s four-year reign before being out-battled by that rival the following year. This year contested in bottomless ground he was prominent throughout and ground out a slow-motion finish in the mud with a more patiently ridden Captain Chris, and had a seriously hard race in victory. The space between that race and the Gold Cup should enable him enough time to recover but his jumping has never been superb around Cheltenham and he’ll really need to improve upon that against these rivals – I think he could have already reached the peak of his powers and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if a few have now improved past him.
Dom Alco (FR) — Gazelle Lulu (FR) (Altayan)
Notes: The new guard from the Paul Nicholls stable following the recent retirements of stable stalwarts Denman and Kauto Star. Silviniaco Conti has wasted little time in establishing himself as one of the best staying chasers around. He has shown somewhat of a seasonal performance pattern within his races, if you only take his performances from March-November they would read (1111131111) with his only defeat coming against Cue Card over a trip probably short of his best in a tactically run affair. His form in the height of winter reads (34241) which when broken down doesn’t look too bad at all. A solid third to Menorah and Cue Card giving away 4lb over a trip short of his best doesn’t read at all well given that Menorah went on to finish 5th in a very good Champion Hurdle, and Cue Card fourth in the Supreme Novices Hurdle. A fourth place against proven two-milers in a tactically run affair in which he was attempting to give away weight and a beating in which was probably the worst run of his career so far. His next defeat came in the Feltham Novices Chase where he was ridden very close to a ridiculously early gallop and plugged on bravely to hold second, finding out Grands Crus too good (was held up in early exchanges) but held Bobs Worth a further three lengths back in third (later found to have a breathing problem). He was then soundly beaten with seemingly no excuses in the Reynoldstown Novices Chase at Ascot on his next defeat, with Bobs Worth reversing Kempton form – and his most promising piece of form came last weekend when beating The Giant Bolster by 7 lengths in a decent time to finally end his winter hoodoo of form outside of the spring and late autumn months. A winner of a Charlie Hall Chase, Betfair Chase and Denman Chase this campaign he heads into the Gold Cup top-rated with an official rating of 175 – and looks to have very solid claims of winning another Gold Cup for Messrs Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh.
The Giant Bolster
Black Sam Bellamy (IRE) (10.7f) — Divisa (GER) (Lomitas (11.1f))
Notes: Improving from seemingly out of nowhere to finish second in last year’s renewal of the Gold Cup, the David Bridgewater trained gelding has had mixed campaign thus far when many expected him to be winning big races this season. He was a fairly unconsidered 50-1 chance last year and he certainly won’t be anywhere near that price this time. Beaten by Silviniaco Conti and Long Run on his comeback in the Betfair Chase earlier in the year he looked like that second placed effort was no fluke and for a split-second looked like playing a hand in the finish until weakening on the run-in. He made a few errors throughout that race and he isn’t the cleanest jumper of a fence I’ve seen and his mistakes will ultimately cost him races. Completely at sea on the heavy ground at Kempton on his next start he was beaten practically after the second fence and was rightly pulled up by Tony McCoy when it was clear to all that he wasn’t on a going day. His most recent effort in the Denman Chase doesn’t read too badly as he returned to the similar sort of form of his running in the race last year (ran to the same RPR of 166). On the whole his jumping was more correct and he battled on bravely to finish second to Silviniaco Conti but in these conditions he ultimately wasn’t a match for the winner (who was 4lb worse off for their Haydock meeting). Given his ability to make mistakes in the jumping department it could well be that The Giant Bolster finds it harder to jump out of soft winter ground (similar to Sir Des Champs), it is also apparent he has a real liking for Cheltenham. On decent ground at Cheltenham his form reads (6F1UU12), with his sixth placed effort coming in the Neptune Novices Hurdle the year Peddlers Cross won, but for his jumping errors his form would read 112 over fences at Cheltenham. These runs include an impressive winner of a novice handicap chase off a mark of 140, a seventeen length destruction of decent handicappers off a mark of 146, and second in last year’s Gold Cup so all of a sudden he doesn’t seem such a wild shot at a competitive race. The fact he has twice run within 7L of Silviniaco Conti on ground plenty softer than ideal suggests to me back on better ground he wouldn’t be a million at getting involved in the finish of the Gold Cup. Quite whether he has the class to win the race is unclear, despite his second last year but quotes of around 20-1 appear generous at this stage.
Flemenstar has been ruled out of the Cheltenham Festival with a lung infection but would probably have been heading for the Champion Chase anyway judging by the recent market after his Irish Hennessy defeat.
Imperial Commander almost made a fairytale comeback from a long layoff of 680-days following an injury obtained in the 2011 Gold Cup. He won this race beating both Denman and Kauto Star and a return to that sort of form would make him very hard to beat here. He will no doubt improve for his comeback run in the Argento when worn down late on by Cape Tribulation but has the age stat against him and would be the first twelve-year-old to win the race since What A Myth in 1969.
First Lieutenant would have solid claims in this race were this to be his target but it looks all set that he’ll be routed towards the Ryanair giving his owner a chance of winning his own race, and the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Sir Des Champs.
Cape Tribulation has improved this season to be better than ever, and rounded off a rather splendid success in the Rowland Meyrick with a gutsy win over Imperial Commander in the Argento Chase last time out. Still fairly lightly raced over fences he is a previous winner at the Cheltenham Festival having won the Pertemps Final at last year’s Festival (off a mark of 142). A better horse generally on better ground his two recent successes on heavy ground suggest he is in the form of his life, and considering he has plenty of stamina in his pedigree he will be staying on when many have cried enough and has outside chances of getting a place.
Captain Chris ran the race of his life according to RPR’s when second in the King George last time up, and in doing so proved he is capable of staying three miles. The problem is though that despite winning an Arkle he is a better horse going right-handed so it has to be questioned whether he’ll be as potent at Cheltenham in March. He put in a fair run in the Ryanair last year staying on late before flattening out up the run-in but there’s every chance he is better this year. I think he’ll struggle though to be honest, and targets like the Betfair Chase at Ascot this coming weekend and then perhaps Punchestown seem more logical options for the gelded son of Kings Theatre.
Tidal Bay was a solid second to Bobs Worth in the Hennessy Gold Cup before being victorious in the Lexus Chase over the festive period. He has since been off with injury but connections have pinpointed a tilt at the Grand National, but before that the World Hurdle is said to be his most likely target which suggests he won’t be lining up in this race.
Katenko has proven a revelation for the switch to Venetia Williams and would be unbeaten over fences here had he not bumped into Wyck Hill in a race that has worked out well since. Kept busy in typical Venetia Williams fashion Katenko has racked up two high-grade handicap victories by a combined distance of 21 lengths, he holds a provisional entry in the Racing Plus Chase at Kempton (formerly Racing Post Chase) in just over a week and you’d have to imagine he’d need to win that convincingly to have any chance in the Gold Cup three weeks later. Clearly a smart horse but his might be a year too soon perhaps, but will probably come up short anyway against this higher-class of opposition.
One of the most open Gold Cup fields I’ve seen in many years, and it seems weird that we are without the dynamic duo of Kauto Star and Denman who provided us with such entertainment in this race since 2007.
Long Run is still around to try to regain his crown, a feat which has only been achieved by Kauto Star before him and to be honest from what I’ve seen of him this year he is going to struggle to do that. His gutsy success in the King George must have taken a lot out of him and although he has had a break since there are questions marks over just how much improvement (if any) he has left. He hasn’t been the most fluid jumper, especially around Cheltenham and I think he’ll really need to be on his top game to trouble the new guard.
Another member of the old guard Imperial Commander is another attempting to regain his crown he won so brilliantly in 2010. He made a pleasing return from an injury-induced layoff in the Argento Chase but at 12 years of age he isn’t getting any better and with the last 12-year-old winner of this race coming in 1969 it suggests it’ll be a tall order for the likeable and high-class son of Flemensfirth to roll back the years here.
Cape Tribulation has clearly improved this season but he isn’t the biggest horse and at championship pace over fences his jumping could come under pressure. He has plenty of stamina in his pedigree though and should be plugging on towards the closing sections of the race and whilst he doesn’t look good enough to trouble the judge he could well sneak into third at a price.
Sir Des Champs is aiming to make it three wins in a row at the Cheltenham Festival and signed off his preparation with a workmanlike victory in the Irish Hennessy the last day. The return to better ground which should help his jumping looks like bringing out further improvement, and he clearly has a liking for the course – that said I think his performances over fences thus far aren’t quite as good as achieved by some of his rivals here, and although he has scope to improve and is clearly very good he looks a point or two shorter than he should be in the market.
Silviniaco Conti is an interesting type and is bidding to make it a fourth win in the race since the turn of the millennium for trainer Paul Nicholls. He has improved with each run over fences and returned as good as ever in the Denman Chase last time. The extra distance shouldn’t pose many threats to him as he has looked to have plenty of stamina and he comes into this race top-rated on a mark of 175. The one slight thing that concerns me is that he isn’t very big in size and has been kept to small fields over fences and thus is unproven in the hustle and bustle of a big Festival chase where ability to get positioned and jump accurately is at a premium. His size would put him at a disadvantage against the bigger grosser types he is likely to encounter in this field and although I thought he was the most likely winner of the race after his Newbury success – I have decided against siding with him.
Bobs Worth is unbeaten in four attempts at Cheltenham which includes two impressive Festival successes in both the Albert Bartlett Hurdle and RSA Chase. He looked as good as ever when winning the Hennessy Gold Cup off a mark of 160, in the process winning off the highest mark since Denman’s first win (161). Denman was up against a lesser quality of opposition than Bobs Worth for his first Hennessy success and comparisons between the two can be drawn on the basis they both won the RSA Chase the previous season. Denman went on to win the Gold Cup that year in a dazzling success over Kauto Star and although we haven’t seen Bobs Worth since his romp in November, with just five chase starts so far he clearly has further room for improvement. I haven’t always been the biggest fan of Bobs Worth as he isn’t flashy in any way and just gets the job done with a resounding frequency at Prestbury Park. I believe there has only been one runner with under six previous starts successful in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in just under 50 years so the stats on that score are against Bobs Worth – that said I think he is above ordinary and I fully expect him to take plenty of beating next month.
The horse which can give him most to think about is the David Bridgewater trained The Giant Bolster. Second in this race last season 50-1, he put together a performance which seemingly appeared out of nowhere. A closer inspection of his form sees an affinity with Cheltenham racecourse and a preference for decent racing ground is clear, so the fact he has run two of his best races of his career this season with both coming on bottomless ground suggests to me he has improved again. A disappointing effort when all at sea at Kempton in the King George he returned to the same level of form shown on his prep run prior to his second in the Gold Cup last season, this time on much softer ground. He isn’t the best jumper and like Long Run he is prone to mistakes but he seems able to correct himself these days and apart from being pulled-up at Kempton two starts ago he has completed the course on all starts since November 2011.
It is interesting to note that the last 13 winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup had run in either the King George Chase or Lexus Chase that season, before going onto success at The Festival. With 10 of the last 11 winners of the Gold Cup either finishing first or second in either race. That said Imperial Commander managed only fifth in the King George before winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2010 and both Looks Like Trouble (2000) and See More Business (1999) were both pulled up in the King George before going onto success at Cheltenham.
Taking all this into account and the fact that Bobs Worth hasn’t been seen since the Hennessy and is likely to head straight for The Festival without a recent run, add to that only one horse in almost 50 years has won a Gold Cup with less than six previous chase starts, is leading me to sway towards THE GIANT BOLSTER, something which I never thought was possible before looking at this race in-depth when writing this preview.
Unlike Bobs Worth he has the requisite run in either the King George or Lexus Chase which has sourced 13 winners on the spin, and as Looks Like Trouble and See More Business proved you can be pulled up in the King George and still go on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, The Giant Bolster really begins to come into my calculations with the expected improvement switched back to Cheltenham and better ground.
That said although I am siding with David Bridgewater’s gelding it really wouldn’t surprise me if Bobs Worth bucked both the trends mentioned above, he is clearly high-class but at almost six times the price it just might be worth siding with The Giant Bolster to go one better in the race he surprised so many in 12 months ago.
That’s what I think! What do you think? Leave a comment below…