Monday 18 December 2017

A wealth of first-world jockey problems loom

Bryan Cooper faces dilemma of the Dons — Poli or Cossack — in the Gold Cup
Bryan Cooper faces dilemma of the Dons — Poli or Cossack — in the Gold Cup

Ian McClean

The new-coined term is the 'Downton Abbey economy', one that reveals the growing division globally between rich and poor. It is made up of a super-rich one per cent elite at one end, a burgeoning swell of the poor on the other, and an increasingly squeezed middle in between.

Given the increased proliferation of Ricci, McManus and Gigginstown silks on the racetracks of late, especially in the Graded races, horseracing it seems is simply mirroring the broader economy and, with that, truly living up to the moniker of 'Sport of Kings'.

We have long since become acclimatised to Flat racing being dominated by the multiple colour variations on the jockey caps of the few sheikhs and breeding magnates, but now even jump racing, with almost nil financial upside, has been infiltrated by the sort of wealth monopoly that makes the days of a Limestone Lad or Danoli already seem like romantic myths of a bygone era.

One of the increasingly visible consequences of the rise of the tycoons in jump racing is that it increasingly creates a dilemma for the retained jockey who more frequently now has two or more highly talented candidates for the same big race and is forced into making a difficult decision. The dilemma reaches an extreme when Barry Geraghty is forced to choose from no fewer than eight JP McManus runners in the Paddy Power Chase.

This very first-world jockey problem will become even more acute when there is most at stake at the spring Festivals and, although the dilution provided by a four-day Festival that increases the spread of competition relieves the pressure somewhat, there are already some high-profile Sophie's Choices lurking for certain jockeys in March.

The most obvious example surfaces in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, where the jockey's dilemma appears at the double with the front four horses in the market. If the Gold Cup were today then Ruby Walsh would have to choose between Djakadam and Vautour, while Bryan Cooper would be suffering the dilemma of the Dons - Poli or Cossack?

Not only are the two names similar but on the evidence of Thursday's effort in the Kinloch Brae, Don Cossack is adopting some Poli traits. Indeed, figuring out precisely which Don Cossack will show up in less than nine weeks is far from clear-cut. On Thursday's Thurles evidence, the Gordon Elliot nine-year-old has transcended from a dodgy-jumping traveller to a dodgy-travelling jumper to the point that cheekpieces are the talk for Friday March 18. All the more alarming when Don Cossack already has two Grade Ones in the 'moral winner' bag through jumping errors if Timeform's assessment of "but for which he would have won" in both the Ryanair and King George are correct. If, as he did at Punchestown, Cossack puts the jumping together with the travelling then he is likely to prove an irresistible force that day.

Don Poli, by contrast, just keeps winning. He is a marmite horse more than any that polarises opinion. The issue is that he just wins ugly. However, it is hard to fault the bare record of eight wins from 10 starts since arriving from France, including a perfect two-from-two at the Festival. Still a relatively lightly-raced seven-year-old that seems to have perfected the art of minimal effort, it is highly conceivable there is more improvement still to come, especially over the extended Gold Cup distance.

If that summarises Bryan's choice, then Ruby's is no less difficult to unravel. Djakadam all but won the Gold Cup last year - a rare achievement for a six-year-old (only Long Run since Mill House in 1963) - and was undone only in the final yards by a freak of a horse in Coneygree. Already this season he looked improved in demolishing Grade One rivals over a too-sharp distance in the John Durkan in December and, in any conventional year, a jockey would be stuck like a barnacle to a horse of his profile.

However, that is to reckon without Vautour which has had the aura of a winter Pegasus for some time now. That aura translated into the most sublime performance over fences in the Golden Miller last Festival, a virtuoso show that backed up an equally dominant bossing of the Supreme Novices the previous year. Vautour owned the King George for almost every inch of the race before getting beaten a pixel on the line by Cue Card and Ruby Walsh may have been more conservative if given his time back again.

However, as a horse that consistently blooms in spring, prefers a left-handed track and has reserved his two most impressive displays ever for the Festival, how difficult is Vautour not to ride in the Gold Cup?

Hypothetically, if the Gold Cup was scheduled for today and the jockeys had to make a decision today, the likelihood is that decision in both cases would come down to the state of the ground. But don't good horses go on any ground?

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