Thursday 22 August 2019

Market leaders eye glint of Gold

Nicky Henderson trains Cocktails At Dawn
Nicky Henderson trains Cocktails At Dawn

Ian McClean

Everybody has their own official starting point for the jumps season. For some it begins with the Tipperary card on Arc day in early October. For others the kick-off is the Chepstow meeting that used to feature the Free Hurdle and Mercedes Benz Chase, now reformatted and rebadged. For many the page turns in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby.

However, for those few still in the denial of desperately clinging on to the November Handicap, there can be no refuting the advent of the winter game when we finally arrive at the foot of the Cheltenham Open meeting. The Open feature, run next Saturday, has had many labels since its inception in 1960, ranging from the Mackeson, for 35 years, to the Murphy's to the Thomas Pink to the current incumbent Paddy Power who took over the Gold Cup sponsorship in 2003.

Down the years there have been some iconic winners: Fortria (first winner and again two years later); Dunkirk; Gay Trip (twice); Half Free; Bradbury Star; Cyfor Malta and Imperial Commander all kindle instant warmth in the hearts of jump racing fans and it remains to be seen whether Saturday's field has a future household name in its midst.

The Pipe yard is a fair place to begin investigation given that Martin Pipe farmed the race between 1987 and 2005, taking the spoils no fewer than eight times. Son David didn't waste much time in following the tradition, rowing in with Great Endeavour in 2011 and has four entries for this year's renewal. The Pond House yard, perhaps unsurprisingly, supplies two of the first three in the betting with horses of wildly differing profiles: one a lightly-raced, somewhat fragile seven-year-old; the other a hardy ex-French densely-campaigned nine.

Kings Palace has been described by Pipe recently as still having "lots of untapped potential" which, translated, might mean he is still feasibly handicapped even off a mark of 154. Raced just 11 times, the King's Theatre gelding has won seven. Four of those victories have come at Cheltenham. Kings Palace has won on his seasonal debut in each of the past three seasons and in the past two has also scored twice before Christmas, at Cheltenham. However, all his recent wins have been over three miles and next Saturday represents a step back in trip of half a mile. Habitually a front-runner, the question is whether he will be able to dominate a large field at a fiercely-run pace.

Pipe's other fancied runner Monetaire arrived from France as an apparently well-exposed eight-year-old just last season. That said, he still started favourite on all four chase starts in Britain, including the Topham at Aintree, winning once on Hennessy Day at Newbury and finishing runner-up at the Cheltenham Festival. His chase handicap mark rose from 123 to 141 during the campaign which still leaves him perched on a very alluring 10-5 next Saturday. Monetaire's conqueror at the Festival, Darna, must defy a five-pound rise in the handicap to succeed next weekend but course and, in particular, handicap course form is invaluable around Prestbury Park. Kim Bailey's gelding, despite being nine, is still somewhat unexposed and has only run once since March's Festival win when unseated in the Topham. He may well have more to offer.

The Irish have won the race five times, but before Tranquil Sea's win in 2009 we had to go back to 1980 and Bright Highway to find a non-British winner of the contest. Ireland has eight entries still involved but, pessimistically, you can have 25/1 and above about any Irish runner.

The four horses to the front of the market with recent winning form are Irish Cavalier, Boondooma, Oscar Rock and Cocktails At Dawn.

Irish Cavalier actually won the novice handicap at the Festival and has warmed up this year with a comfortable victory in a minor affair at Newton Abbot, although a 19-pound higher mark from March will make things difficult. Cocktails At Dawn was an also-ran at the Festival behind Irish Cavalier but has been transformed by front-running tactics in two outings since then and now finds himself 18 pounds higher than when beaten 30 lengths at HQ in March. He may struggle to dominate in such a large field.

Oscar Rock has always threatened to be a good horse up north and is finally beginning to live into the notion. He looked like capturing a Grade Two at Ayr in April before being broadsided three out, but returned to win the competitive listed chase at Market Rasen with authority in September. Malcolm Jefferson's candidate is definitely on the upgrade.

Boondooma was extremely promising in a truncated last campaign as a novice but was seriously impressive on his comeback run at Cheltenham's October meeting. There he helped to force a relentless gallop before surging clear from the last over two miles in a fiercely hot affair that included the first, second and fifth from the Grand Annual. The step up in trip will only be to his advantage and solid recent market support has seen him clipped into favourite in many books. That support might well be seen as inspired by mid-afternoon next Saturday.

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