No race delivers so often on promise as the Gold Cup, whether it’s the sheer theatre of Dawn Run’s irresistible late rally in 1986, Norton’s Coin’s 100/1 defeat of the nation’s darling in 1990 or Adrian Maguire lifting Cool Ground over the line in a 3-way photo in 1993.
Those were the highlights of my time as a young man watching the Gold Cup on television, but that enjoyment is magnified by seeing events unfold in the raw, and there have been several moments of genuine wonder in recent years, from the majesty of Denman’s demolition job to the moment he and Kauto Star figuratively passed the baton in mid-air to Long Run, and through genuinely headscratching finishes like Lord Windermere’s race where five horses seemed sure to win at different points before the verdict was known.
Once again, drama met fairytale in Coneygree’s success a year ago, and we are set for a generation-defining contest next Friday it seems. Who would be elsewhere?
Cheltenham 2016 – Timico Gold Cup Contenders
Don Cossack (Gordon Elliott)
Sholokov – Depeche Toi (Konigsstuhl)
Rated an unlucky loser in last year’s Ryanair, under a ride recently described as “diabolical” by Gordon Elliott, he’s not been beaten when finishing his race since, and was rated the moral winner of the King George by Timeform after he fell when disputing second place in the straight. Some will point to his jumping as a problem, and he also fell in the RSA as a novice, but he’s capable of a superb exhibition when things go right, as when destroying Cue Card at Aintree last April. His best performances last year came when he was ridden by weighing-room veterans Paul Carberry and Tony McCoy, and it’s possible that he and his regular jockey don’t gel as well as they could. On the other hand, he’s won three times for Cooper this term, and perhaps that criticism is harsh. Either way, his rider needs to choose between him and Don Poli here, and it’s intriguing that his trainer has been getting Davy Russell in to ride work in anticipation of the veteran rider getting a late call-up next week. That would make him of particular interest, as I believe the wily Russell will be able to get something out of Don Cossack that the youthful Cooper may not.
Cue Card (Colin Tizzard)
King’s Theatre – Wicked Crack (King’s Ride)
The story of the season has been the renaissance of Cue Card, who was found to have a trapped epiglottis prior to last year’s Festival which saw him miss the Gold Cup for the second year in succession. It’s more than possible that he’s been afflicted by his breathing prior to that, given his form had suffered in the early part of last season, and his capitulation in the latter stages of the 2013 King George, wrongly attributed to lack of stamina, now looks like the behavior of a horse who was struggling with his wind. He’s certainly been transformed, either by the operation or by a move to a new purpose-built yard at Spurles Farm, some 150 feet up the hill from Tizzard’s old operation. The switch of stables has seen a revival in quite a few of Tizzard’s horses, and they have stayed healthy throughout the winter, which is always a big boon. Wins in the Betfair Chase and King George (where he looked all about stamina) puts him in line for a £1million bonus from the Jockey Club, and if he wasn’t a ten-year-old gelding who made his first Festival appearance in 2010, he’s probably be the clear favourite. Veterans are always vulnerable to unexposed rivals in Championship races, or course, but Cue Card has done all that has been required of him this season, and arrives at Cheltenham with glowing credentials, unlike one or two of his rivals.
Vautour (Willie Mullins)
Robin des Champs – Gazelle de Mai (Dom Pasquini)
Vautour was probably the most impressive winner of any chase at last year’s Festival, and blessed as he is with a tremendous cruising speed and quicksilver jumping (granted good ground) would be an odds-on favourite were he to rock up in the Champion Chase or Ryanair – hell, he’d probably be favourite if he, rather than Annie Power, was supplemented for the Champion Hurdle! The trouble is that his connections want him to be their Gold Cup flagbearer, and after travelling like the winner for the vast majority of the King George, he has shown that he has what it takes to win granted a following wind. That’s what he may need, however, as the extra two furlongs of the Gold Cup will be stretching his suspect stamina to breaking point. Should the ground come up quick, he’s likely to travel on the bridle longer than his main rivals, but whether Ruby Walsh would want to commit him for home at the top of the hill is open to debate. Riding him more patiently may rob him of his chief weapon, which is the ability to get slower rivals on the back foot, and the tactics will be hard to execute perfectly. Owner Rich Ricci has stated that he goes here or nowhere in terms of Cheltenham, which seems to rule out a Ryanair bid (remained in the Champion Chase at the 6-day stage), but the doubt remains as to whether this is the correct race for him. He’s been talked about in bullish terms, but the most recent vibes are slightly more luke-warm.
Djakadam (Willie Mullins)
Saint des Saints – Rainbow Crest (Baryshnikov)
Representing the same connections as Vautour, Djakadam was an excellent second to Coneygree a year ago, and would look an obvious contender but for falling in the BetBright Trial here in January. That reverse has put Vautour into the forefront of his team’s thinking for the race, and the fact that Djakadam picked up a bad cut to his chest in that fall can’t have helped Willie Mullins prepare him for a Gold Cup bid. One would imagine that he’s not the type to impress in his work as much as the flashy Vautour, but it’s more than possible that Ricci and co have been deceived by home impressions. Djakadam is a very much a Gold Cup horse in make-up as he showed a year ago, and his win in the John Durkan over a shorter trip in November was a seriously impressive performance. He really shouldn’t have fallen last time, as he was given plenty of room and had time to adjust himself before take-off, and perhaps it’s that carelessness which is the biggest negative against him. He jumped soundly and travelled powerfully when chasing home Coneygree twelve months ago, and if his trainer can deliver him in the same shape now, I’d fancy his chances of beating his stablemate over this trip.
Much has been made of the fact that Dawn Run won the Gold Cup thirty years ago after unseating in the same trial race, but that’s nothing more than interesting coincidence, and it remains the case that a last-time-out fall is not an ideal preparation for Gold Cup glory. It’s not insurmountable, though, and along with Dawn Run, both Captain Christy (two unseats from two starts in 1973/74) and Glencaraig Lady (fell in the RSA and her first Gold Cup) won Gold Cups having failed to complete in their previous tries over English fences.
Don Poli (Willie Mullins)
Poliglote – Dalamine (Sillery)
Last year’s RSA winner was immediately sent to the top of the ante-post lists for this race, but was quickly overtaken by events, with Vautour and Coneygree both putting up scintillating performances in subsequent days. He’s rather become a forgotten horse, with one or two christening him “Don Slowly” as a result of his languid style. He’s not set the pulse racing in winning both races this winter, but has done all he’s been asked and is never the type to look flashy in victory. His most recent win came in the Lexus at Leopardstown in typical winter ground, and that course doesn’t lend itself to making chasers look good. He’s been pigeon-holed as needing soft ground, but that isn’t backed up by his race record with his Cheltenham wins both coming on ground no slower than good. The first of those two successes came over two and a half miles, of course, and the notion that he’s a plodder is undoubtedly wide of the mark.
A bigger question with Don Poli is whether he has the absolute merit to win a Gold Cup, and he trails several of his rivals in the ratings, but that’s rather a function of his career path, and he’s not been given the opportunity to show how high he can fly. That opportunity will be afforded him on Friday, and he should put up a career-best performance provided all is well with him. That won’t necessarily be enough for him to win, but he’s not one to take lightly.
Smad Place (Alan King)
Smadoun – Bienna Star (Village Star)
Better served by front running than more patient tactics, and as such is forgiven a below-par run in the King George, for all he wasn’t disgraced. He has won the Hennessy and BetBright Trial either side of that run, and deserves a crack at this prize, but there is surely no more improvement to come, and he’s playing for a place at best, it seems. Deserves credit for his longevity, and it’s worth remembering that he was well fancied for the Triumph Hurdle as a youngster. Not many who run in that are able to be competitive in a Gold Cup, although Commanche Court almost did the double for Ted Walsh, of course.
Underfoot conditions will likely play a part here, as will riding arrangements, with Bryan Cooper facing a tough choice between Don Poli and Don Cossack. The latter would presumably become Davy Russell’s ride should Cooper plum for the Lexus winner, and that would make him of interest. Fast ground would help Vautour’s challenge, but his potential stamina limitations at the Gold Cup trip militate against him at current odds.