Gritty Annacotty captures Gold prize
Alan King's seasonal debutant lifts the gloom in a thrilling encounter
Black skies and black armbands were both momentarily illuminated by a thrilling finish to the first major handicap of the jump racing calendar in the Paddy Power sponsored Gold Cup yesterday at Cheltenham. The biblical rain that was forecast never fully materialised at Prestbury Park's natural amphitheatre: however, the steady drizzle throughout the morning and afternoon was enough to ensure that jockeys and horses would have to fully earn their corn, and so it proved in the main event.
There are fewer more densely-knit handicaps in the programme-book than Cheltenham's traditional season's curtain-raiser and yesterday's looked particularly impenetrable beforehand. With many keen-goers in the line-up a fiercely run heat was predicted, and so it transpired. The old maxim that under such conditions at Cheltenham the jockey should "wait until the last possible moment ….and then wait again" before delivering a challenge was ignored by not just one, but both market leaders in turn as first favourite Kings Palace swept majestically to the front at the top of the hill before giving way to second favourite Irish Cavalier who arrived there pulling a bus on the outside under Paul Townend after the third last.
However, the premature mid-race exertions took their toll as the two market principals ended by filling 5th and 11th positions at the finish. The flock that engulfed them saw the lead change hands amongst it more often than a relay from the last, and at one point, with whips and mud flying amidst a clump of horseflesh, it was impossible to predict what might prevail. However, ultimately it was the stamina and grit of previous course winner Annacotty that won the day.
The seven year-old was making its seasonal debut and also its debut for the Alan King yard, having been transferred by owner Liz Prowting who believed the gelding might benefit from a change of scenery. Both trainer Alan King and jockey Ian Popham in tandem were winning the race for the very first time. But whilst Alan King is pretty accustomed to big-race victory as one of the country's leading trainers, Ian Popham has been struggling through a punishing career vortex.
"At the start of the season I didn't really know how things were going to go," he said after the race. "That's just my third winner of the season and to be honest, I was on my backside not so long ago and I really didn't know what the future was going to hold - riding a few horses who didn't have much chance."
A clearly emotional Popham admitted "That was the most incredible feeling. Now I'm hugely thankful to the owners because that was just my third winner of the season and until last week I hadn't ridden a winner at all. It's funny how this game goes - you're up and down like a yo-yo and I'm having to pinch myself a bit. It seems unreal." Coincidentally, the dam of Annacotty (Mini Moo Min) was also trained by Alan King and actually provided him with his first ever winner as a trainer back in 1999.
Not for the first time, Buywise found a trouble-blighted passage throughout and yet again finished strongly to snatch an unlucky looking second in a big handicap. Trainer Evan Williams was as frustrated as he was delighted by a round he characterised as being "in jail everywhere". Williams concluded "He's smoked his mark now and the chances of him winning here in December are slim to nil."
The day's other major long distance handicap chase was delivered in mud-splattered style by Richard Johnson, who is beginning to mete out to his weigh-room colleagues the type of numerical dominance that was meted out to him by a certain AP McCoy for the past two decades.
Sausalito Sunrise delivered on the promise of his novice season, charting a wide course throughout to get the better of fellow sophomore Upswing in a driving finish by a length and a quarter. Johnson reflected "He had a nasty fall at Kempton last year (behind Coneygree) and in most of his chases last season there were four or five runners, and he's probably a big baby really who hasn't had the confidence to go and hold his own in a big field."
The Hennessy now comes into consideration for the seven year-old according to trainer Philip Hobbs. "It's only (the Hennessy) in a couple of weeks time but he's probably a winter horse and he could go if he's fit and well. The other option is the Welsh National at Chepstow if the Hennessy comes too quickly," he said.
The trainer and jockey went on to complete a 22/1 double on the card when Copper Kay ran away with the mares' bumper. In doing so she helped record the highly unorthodox statistic of the dam of the winner (Presenting Copper) also producing the second home in the same race - the Jonjo O'Neill-trained Which One is Which.
Sunday Indo Sport