Jury remains out before final trials
By this time next week, any horse with real pretensions to the Cheltenham Gold Cup will have been seen in public for the last time before the race itself in mid-March.
Between last weekend's Argento Chase and next Saturday's double act of Leopardstown's Hennessy Gold Cup coupled with Newbury's Denman Chase, most of those coming aboard will already be on the Gold Cup trial wagon and, bar the likes of Katenko or Wyck Hill winning the Racing Plus Chase at Kempton by a distance at the end of February, we should pretty much know where we stand regarding jump racing's Blue Riband by then.
Last week's Argento Chase looked like being a major tributary to the main event. However, the withdrawal of Gold Cup favourite Bobs Worth (with a dirty scope) and the morning abdication of Tidal Bay robbed the event of much of its glitter. It paved the way, however, for the reappearance of former Gold Cup hero Imperial Commander after a 680-day absence.
Valiantly though he tried, his 12-year-old hooves just couldn't repel the late, late challenge of the improved Cape Tribulation in the final strides in an event where just four of the ten that started completed.
Master Oats (1995) and Looks Like Trouble (2000) are the only winners of the Argento (former Cotswold Chase) to have gone on to Gold Cup glory in the same season, and it is hard to imagine any of this year's protagonists troubling the judge on March 15. The gallant but legless Hunt Ball has already been diverted to the Byrne Group Plate. Imperial Commander, in spite of his lay-off, had much in his favour on the day. His record when fresh, course form, meticulous preparation and generous weight concession (6lbs from Cape Tribulation; 10lbs from many others) implied a big run, and the fact that he failed to contain the winner has to mark him down in terms of his former ability. Also the factor of the dreaded "bounce" has to be a concern just seven weeks later, given the exertions of the day.
Finally, for all that Cape Tribulation is maturing into a 160-horse, it is hard to imagine him improving into a Gold Cup winner in the next six weeks.
All of which escalates the trials at Leopardstown and Newbury next Saturday as even more critical to the final outcome. The Denman Chase (former Aon) looks like featuring a head-to-head between Britain's leading trainers Henderson and Nicholls, via a clash involving Silvianaco Conti and Long Run. What is interesting here is that in both cases, directly after winning their last race (Betfair Chase and King George respectively), their trainers both announced a straight-to-Gold-Cup policy. They've obviously both had a rethink since.
Long Run won the Newbury race last year en route to disappointing in the Gold Cup. He now has a score to settle with Silviniaco Conti after succumbing to that fitter rival in the Betfair Chase in November. Silviniaco Conti had previously sluiced up in the Charlie Hall from some inferior or out-of-form rivals. One intriguing fact for the stat-lovers is that no Charlie Hall winner has ever gone on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the same season (although Davy Lad did win the Gold Cup two year's later). Track configuration, distance and time of year have everything to do with the establishment of that truth as Wetherby in October couldn't be further from Prestbury Park in March.
Which makes the about-turn on Silvianaco Conti all the more perplexing. Throughout last season connections were adamant he wasn't a Cheltenham horse. He would have been fully entitled to take his chance in the RSA on his form with Bobs Worth, but from some way out Paul Nicholls was adamant to avoid the undulations of Cheltenham in favour of Aintree, where he was extremely impressive. His two victories this season have come at flat tracks and, however he fares at Newbury, it will only add to his flat track portfolio.
Cheltenham's loss last Saturday will be Leopardstown's gain next Saturday as Tidal Bay will now be re-routed for a tantalising rematch with Lexus victims Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs. Each of the three protagonists can harbour just cause for optimism in the rematch – Tidal Bay for emerging victorious on the day; Flemenstar for having appeared to have put the race easily to bed until the run-in; and Sir Des Champs for having finished so close despite two serious jumping errors. It is understandable that connections of Flemenstar should give three miles one more try. However, horses don't suddenly acquire stamina and whatever the outcome, I will be surprised if the Gold Cup proves to be Peter Casey's star's Festival destination.
Also, given Ruby Walsh's enthusiasm for Silviniaco Conti, coupled with the absence of Big Buck's, it appears more likely Tidal Bay will be World Hurdle-bound in March.
After the Christmas period, the only horse to shorten in the betting for the Gold Cup was Bobs Worth – the only one that stayed home in his box. Through a minor infection, Bobs Worth will again be absent next Saturday (and indeed will not reappear until Gold Cup day itself). His season will have been confined to just one run (in the Hennessy in November). Could it be the case, again, that absence makes the market grow fonder?