Know Your Race – Gold Cup

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The fourth and final instalment of Know Your Race.
The fourth and final instalment of Know Your Race.

The Gold Cup is the only one of the four championship races where the distance (3m2½f) is significantly different to the main trials. Most trials are over 3m – in Britain the King George and Denman, in Ireland the Down Royal Champion Chase, Lexus and Irish Hennessy. The Betfair Chase was upped from 3m to 3m1f last season and the Argento Chase is over 3m1½f. Away from conditions events, the Hennessy (3m2½f) has been an increasingly good trial in recent years for 2nd season chasers on the up.

It’s important to appreciate how tough a race that makes the Gold Cup – the exertions needed to win a championship race over 3m2½f leave a mark on many winners. Only Best Mate and Kauto Star have won more than once in the last 40 years – it’s paid to oppose defending champions who usually go off very short, (though this year Lord Windermere has, if anything, been underestimated.)

Similarly, it’s rare for a horse to be beaten in its first Gold Cup and subsequently win it, (the last was See More Business in 1999 and he was carried out the previous year). That’s a negative for favourite Silviniaco Conti, (who’s been beaten twice in the race,) and also Sir Des Champs, Captain Chris, On His Own & The Giant Bolster.

It’s therefore not surprising that the winner often comes to the Gold Cup with stamina to prove. Of the 11 horses to win the race this century only 3 had proved their stamina at the trip before they first won the Gold Cup. Synchronised had won the Welsh National and Denman & Bobs Worth had won the Hennessy. With the exception of Lord Windermere, (8th in the Hennessy,) none of the others had even run over the 3m2½f trip.

Kicking King, Kauto Star and Long Run had won the King George, Best Mate had been 2nd in it. War Of Attrition had been 2nd in the Lexus and Imperial Commander had been edged out by Kauto Star in the (3m) Betfair Chase. Long Run and Imperial Commander had looked the most likely stayers of that group – but there were doubts about them, and significant doubts about the other 4.

Of course, not all of those with stamina to prove do so. Those with long memories will recall plenty of top class chasers not getting up the hill, such as Wayward Lad, One Man and Florida Pearl. They’ve been less common in recent years, (the alternative of the Ryanair means fewer suspect stayers contest the Gold Cup.) That said, Lyreen Legend looked to have a good chance coming to 2 out last year, only to make a mistake and fade.

Views on a race are subject to fashions like anything else. After 6 consecutive renewals were won by Kauto Star, (ran in the previous season’s Champion Chase,) War Of Attrition & Kicking King, (both ran in the previous season’s Arkle,) and Best Mate, (even money favourite for the Arkle when the Festival was cancelled,) everyone was saying you needed lots of speed for the Gold Cup. The consensus was that sloggers wouldn’t be able to hold their position and, on the prevailing decent ground, the fast horses wouldn’t stop.

With out and out stayers Synchronised and Bob’s Worth winning, and then the conundrum of Lord Windermere’s victory – the opposite consensus now holds true. Most pundits begin by saying how much stamina you need to win a Gold Cup.

As usual, the truth is somewhere in between, but you should never be put off by unproven stamina. Assess the likelihood of that horse staying – if it does then its speed advantage is often vital. The gallop is clearly crucial to how much of a stamina test it’ll be – of all the four championship races, the Gold Cup is the one where the gallop probably varies most. (The Champion Chase is always fast, the World Hurdle invariably steady and the Champion Hurdle is usually pretty quick, especially compared to the trials.)

On good, quick ground, Long Run broke the track record when winning a fast run renewal in 2011. On proper good to soft ground Denman went so quick when winning in 2008 that he appeared to knock Kauto Star out of his rhythm. When the ground gets really soft, as happened in 2013, only Bob’s Worth was still galloping at the line. There have been plenty of steadily run Gold Cups too, including this year when Lord Windermere won and they went particularly slowly when Kauto Star first won in 2007, (watch those 2 races again and it seems as if the whole field is in contention coming into the straight).

Nearer the day, when the composition of the field is more certain, trying to work out the likely pace is well worth the effort. Clearly when there was a top form Denman in the field, it’d be a proper test at the trip. It’s possible, for example, that Holywell will try something similar this season, but at this stage it’s hard to predict the sort of gallop we’ll get.

I think people are overplaying the stamina card at the moment. On the prevailing sound surface, unless they go very quickly – the winner tends to be a fast horse, that you only know stays well after the race.

Given the detrimental impact a previous run in the race seems to have on a horse’s chance of winning, its not surprising that 2nd season chasers have done so well. Of the 11 horses to have won the race this century, 9 won in their 2nd season, (Best Mate and Kauto Star obviously won again). Only Synchronised and Imperial Commander won for the first time as more experienced horses.

Ignoring O’Faolains Boy who apparently misses the season through injury, the second season chasers at 33/1 or shorter are Champagne Fever (14/1), Holywell, (14/1), Many Clouds, (20/1), Smad Place, (33/1), Road To Riches (33/1) Wonderful Charm (33/1) and Morning Assembly (33/1), (on the basis Don Cossack (33/1) is going for the Ryanair.)

Turning to the form, the mid-season championship race, the King George, has been the best guide. 5 winners this century have won the Gold Cup that season. In what looks a completely different test, (3m on a flat, right-handed track in the King George compared to 3m2½f on a left-handed, undulating track in the Gold Cup,) the form tends to hold up better than you might imagine.

Backing all 12 King George winners this century that contested that season’s Gold Cup returned an SP profit of 4.1pts, (34%). It’s unlikely that this year’s King George winner will be made too short a price for the Gold Cup – so there’d be worse strategies than just backing it immediately afterwards.

The next best trial has been the Lexus with Best Mate, Denman and Synchronised, (interestingly all British trained,) doing the double, though domestic Lexus contenders War Of Attrition and Lord Windermere were both beaten.

The autumn trials haven’t been a great guide. Kauto Star is the only horse that’s won the Down Royal race (2008) or the Betfair Chase (2006) before winning that season’s Gold Cup. The Hennessy has been won by Denman (off 161) and Bob’s Worth (160) the season they won the Gold Cup, but plenty of Hennessy winners have run in the Gold Cup with much less success. (Clearly a 2nd season chaser winning off a high mark has a better Gold Cup chance than an average Hennessy winner.)

The trials in the calendar year haven’t been a great guide either. Looks Like Trouble (2000) was the last Argento winner to follow up in the Gold Cup. The Irish Hennessy is worse, with Imperial Call (1996) the last to do the double, (this century only Lord Windermere (6th of 7) has even run in the race.) The Denman has been slightly better, with Kauto Star and Denman himself winning en route to Gold Cup glory.

Both the trials and the Gold Cup itself are run at different gallops in different years, (the ground obviously being a factor.) There isn’t the correlation in terms of it being a similar test, (like the World Hurdle,) or a similar test but with the uncertainty over jumping at a breakneck gallop, (like the Champion Chase.) If there is a correlation, it’s that the horses tend to also peak at Christmas, 8 of the 14 Gold Cup winners won the King George or Lexus.

As usual, the other key form is from the previous season’s Festival. If you ignore 2002 as there was no Festival the previous year, 7 of the 13 Gold Cup winners this century won at the previous year’s Festival – Looks Like Trouble (RSA), Best Mate (Gold cup – twice), Denman (RSA), Imperial Commander (Ryanair), Bobs Worth (RSA) & Lord Windermere (RSA). Of the other 6, Kicking King (Arkle) and Kauto Star (Gold Cup) had been 2nd, and Long Run (RSA) had been 3rd. Kauto Star had fallen early on in the Champion Chase. Only War Of Attrition (7th in the Arkle) had run moderately.

The only winner that hadn’t run at the previous year’s Festival was Synchronised, (who’s the only upgraded handicapper to have won, though such horses, like Shutthefrontdoor (20/1,) did well in the 90s.) Form at the previous year’s Festival is a huge plus, but it comes from a wide variety of races, (it’d be no surprise to see a horse use the JLT as a stepping stone to winning a Gold Cup.)

A related point is the importance of a horse liking spring ground. This century Gold Cup winners had won 13 of the conditions race trials I mentioned – 10 of those were on ground quicker than soft. No horse has won the Gold Cup this century after running on heavy ground during the season, (Lord Windermere ran on the worst, soft to heavy, in the Irish Hennessy).

Like most staying chases, its crucial to get into a rhythm – horses that can just pop away accurately, (Best Mate was the master at it,) have a big advantage. (Flashy types that stand off and gain a length, but use up lots of energy, might win Champion Chases, but much less often Gold Cups.) Horses that often aren’t that fluent at their fences, like Bob’s Worth, Holywell, Boston Bob & Menorah will all need to jump better than usual to win. (Bob’s Worth made the ground up in the mud when he won, but it’s hard to do that on the prevailing good ground.)

9 of the 14 winners this century hadn’t run in the calendar year, (and a tenth winner, Long Run, ran only in a postponed King George in early January.) Experienced chasers don’t need recent match practice and freshness seems an advantage, (though its arguable that a lot of the best horses are being kept fresh and might have done as well, or better, with a prep run).

The final element I look at is age. I’m a believer that even top class horses really struggle to win the top Festival races beyond a certain age. In the 4 championship races, horses 10 and older have a terrible record. Given that the Gold Cup is much the toughest in terms of what it takes out of a horse, its not surprising that even the greats like Kauto Star and Denman couldn’t win once they’d reached 10, (even though they put up career best performances that season, so looked as good as ever).

The last 10 year old to win was Cool Dawn in 1998 – Bob’s Worth, Boston Bob, Al Ferof, Menorah, First Lieutenant & Captain Chris will all be at least 10 come this season’s Gold Cup. It’s foolish to be dogmatic about such arbitrary statistics. I could see myself backing one of these 10 year olds this season, but it’s important to factor in how age suddenly seems to catch up with so many in the March they are 10 – at championship level.

So often, the Gold Cup market has had all the value squeezed out of it by the turn of the year, with the front 2 or 3 in the market being likely to be a bigger price on the day. By contrast, it’s so open this year that it might pay to get clues from the King George and Lexus before betting.

Another reason for holding fire is that the Gold Cup is usually the first race where bookmakers go non runner, no bet, (“NRNB”). In some years, we’ve had a bookmaker go NRNB by this stage, in some others its happened in early January. I think bookmakers often fail to shorten horses as much as they should when going NRNB – especially long shots. If you fancy a horse like Morning Assembly, who is a general 33/1 chance ante-post, it wouldn’t surprise me if you got 33/1 from one of the first 2 or 3 firms to go NRNB, (assuming his ante-post price hadn’t changed.)

For those wanting to get the juicier prices now, the horses likely to shorten most with strong Christmas performances include Champagne Fever, Al Ferof & Dynaste who run in the King George and Lord Windermere & Road To Riches who contest the Lexus.

If I was having a bet now I’d be looking at some of the 2nd season chasers – Champagne Fever (14/1), Many Clouds (20/1), Smad Place (33/1) and Road To Riches (33/1) or the slightly underrated champion Lord Windermere (12/1). I also have a sneaking feeling Al Ferof (33/1) might be ready to belatedly fulfill his potential.

Conversely, at the current prices, I’d be looking to oppose last season’s beaten horses Silviniaco Conti (8/1) and Bob’s Worth (12/1) and the long absent Sir Des Champs (25/1). Cue Card (20/1) hasn’t looked the same horse since returning from injury and Shutthefrontdoor (20/1) looks a National type, not a Gold Cup horse, (unless the ground is desperate.)

Jumps racing fan and lover of all things that lead to Cheltenham. Can usually be found in the National Spirit Bar at the Festival full of theories (before racing) and still celebrating whatever the outcome (after racing). Favourite horses: Istabraq, Moscow Flyer, Kauto Star, Denman, Relkeel, Master Minded, Limestone Lad, Big Buck's and Sprinter Sacre.

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