Monday 19 August 2019

Gold Cup runneth over with quality chasers

Davy Russell on Lord Windermere celebrates winning the 2014 Cheltenham Gold Cup
Davy Russell on Lord Windermere celebrates winning the 2014 Cheltenham Gold Cup

Ian McClean

The 2014 Gold Cup, by many measures, was one of the worst in recent memory.

Not since the first running of the race back in 1924 were the first three horses home (Lord Windermere, On His Own and The Giant Bolster) separated by so little: a short-head and three quarters of a length the actual margin of division.

In fact, the first six home were covered by less than seven lengths, with each having looked a likely winner at some point in the straight. The winner, Lord Windermere, was rated a lowly 152 before the race and was almost pulled up by Davy Russell at one point. The time of the race was the slowest, relative to the Foxhunters, the next race over course and distance, for years, and the first three past the post have only won a single race between them in the last 20 months.

Yet, reminiscent of the morning when you open the curtains to a fall of snow, the landscape seems to have changed utterly. All of a sudden, instead of bemoaning the scant scattering of quality staying chasers, we are luxuriating in a puffy drift of talent. With a seasonal cast that includes Coneygree, Vautour, Don Cossack, Don Poli, Saphir Du Rheu, Djakadam, Sir Des Champs and Road To Riches amongst the Gold Cup aspirants, repressing the urge to speculate is an exercise in futility.

Coneygree's trainer Mark Bradstock served his time as assistant trainer to Fulke Walwyn, who trained four Gold Cup winners during his career. One victory came via the novice Mont Tremblant, who ran in only four chases, another with Mill House who ran in just five. So Bradstock was already immersed in a career trajectory that embraced a Corinthian ideal of going for glory - something undoubtedly also embodied in the lasting spirit of his father-in-law Lord Oaksey. So the decision to run Coneygree in the Gold Cup in spite of being a novice with just three runs over fences, rather than the RSA Chase is more understandable in that context, despite the more modern-day pragmatism that would have led most major trainers on these islands to ridicule the notion.

The last novice to win the Gold Cup had been Captain Christy way back in 1974, yet even he had six runs over fences. Fewer than two dozen novices had taken the Gold Cup challenge since then, and only two - Drumadowney and Doran's Pride - had made the frame.

The most surprising aspect perhaps of Coneygree's fairytale victory in March's Blue Ribband given the prologue, was that he started as short as 7/1 joint second favourite in a deep field of 16. The eight-year-old has already had a scamper around Sandown this season and is scheduled to race in the Hennessy off 172 next, provided he recovers from a bruised foot.

Officially rated just one pound below Coneygree, or one above if you prefer Timeform, is Vautour, who made his eagerly awaited return to action yesterday at Ascot. It is hard to imagine that another novice could perform with sufficient prowess in a season to be rated right alongside a novice that had just bucked the trend of history by winning a Gold Cup. However, for many, Vautour's imperious demolition of a high quality field in the Golden Miller Chase on Festival Thursday was even more imposing than Coneygree's Gold Cup win.

Vautour was Willie Mullins' highest rated staying novice by the end of last year and heads the Gold Cup market in spite of having yet to race beyond 21 furlongs. However, Mullins also won the traditional 'novices' Gold Cup, the RSA Chase, with a horse guaranteed to relish the extended distance of the Gold Cup, Don Poli. Coneygree's absence from the RSA was Don Poli's gain as he careered away on the run-in to win by six lengths on his first start since winning the Grade 1 Topaz at Leopardstown over Christmas.

French import Don Poli followed the Sir Des Champs route by first winning the Martin Pipe race over hurdles at the Festival before switching to fences and arriving at the next year's Festival unbeaten over the larger obstacles. Given that Denman, Bobs Worth and Lord Windermere have each gone on to Gold Cup glory following their RSA win during the last nine years, six year-old Don Poli's pretensions to the throne are pretty obvious.

Yet another six-year-old, Saphir Du Rheu, had a patchy season last term. Having unshipped twice, behind Coneygree ironically, favourite both times, in his first three attempts over the larger obstacles, his reversion to hurdles almost paid rich dividends in the World Hurdle where the Nicholls trained grey finished second. However, the French-bred gelding put in a scintillating round when returned to fences for his final race in the Grade 1 Mildmay Chase at Aintree. Already a winner at Carlisle this term he is favourite for next weekend's Hennessy at Newbury where an early skirmish with Coneygree may be on the cards.

Coneygree, Vautour, Don Poli and Saphir Du Rheu all represent a sophomore crop of staying chasers as deep as any we have seen in recent years transition into their critical second season. However, add to that the fact that the previous year's old guard had already been upstaged by the likes of Djakadam, himself still a six-year-old with low mileage, and Road To Riches; allied to the return of Sir Des Champs who re-instated himself with a win mid-week and the tantalising prospect of Don Cossack, currently the top-rated chaser in the UK and Ireland, at the Gold Cup distance, and you have a rare recipe worth the ticket of your interest in a fascinating jumping storyboard for the season ahead.

Or, for those who prefer the pounds and pence of things, when in recent memory has the average rating for the first seven in the Gold Cup betting ever been as high as 167?

Elliott's targeting a Troytown repeat

Gordon Elliott is mob-handed in his bid to win this afternoon's Ladbrokes Troytown Chase at Navan for the second successive year.

The Lee Power-owned Balbriggan landed a major gamble when striking gold in the prestigious handicap 12 months ago and this time the master of Cullentra has four chances.

Power's silks are carried by recent Naas third Azorian, who makes his first start in a handicap since leaving Eoin Griffin's yard. Elliott also saddles Gigginstown House Stud's Bonisland, the JP McManus-owned Riverside City and Georges Conn, in the less familiar colours of the Don't Tell The Woman Syndicate.

"It's a great race," says Elliott. "We were lucky enough to win it last year and with Navan being one of my local tracks, that made last year's success extra special.

"Azorian joined us earlier this year and we have been delighted with him. He seems to handle any ground, the step up in trip will suit him and I think he'll have a good each-way chance.

"Bonisland has been off for a while, but he has a bit of class. He works well and obviously he'll have to come back to his best, but he is well and I am happy with him.

"Riverside City has a nice weight on his back and I thought he ran very well in the Cork National (fifth). We know that he stays well and he has sneaked into the bottom of the handicap.

"Georges Conn disappointed the last day at Thurles, but he gets in with a nice weight on his back. He is in good shape and he is owned by local owners, so it's great for them to have a horse good enough to run in a race like this."

Noel Meade saddles a couple of major contenders in Tulsa Jack and Mullaghanoe River. The former arrives at the top of his game following victory in the Cork Grand National three weeks ago, while Mullaghanoe River makes his first appearance since tipping up in the Irish Grand National in April of last year.

"Mullaghanoe River has been doing everything right at home and we're looking forward to getting him going again," said Meade. "He missed all last season, but we're very happy with him at home at the moment.

"Whether Tulsa Jack will handle the ground or not we'll have to wait and see. He handled it in Cork, but it will be more like winter ground on Sunday. We were going to let him off before he won in Cork, but he's just kept improving and improving and we thought we'd let him take his chance this weekend and see how he goes."

Ballychorus has enjoyed an excellent year for trainer Mags Mullins and other contenders in a 15-strong field include Colm Murphy's Empire Of Dirt, the Ted Walsh-trained Rossvoss, who turns out eight days after winning at Punchestown, and recent Down Royal winner Knockanarrigan from Sandra Hughes' yard.

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