Trust King’s Walkon to put hope in your heart
You don't need to go too far back for insights into the enormity of the task facing Grands Crus and Hunt Ball in this afternoon's Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham.
Just two years ago, the similarly up-and-coming Long Run, carrying just 11st 1lb for a 158 rating, had no answer to his more favourably rated elders, Little Josh and Dancing Tornado. Despite that, Long Run stormed 12 lengths clear in the King George the following month, before then crushing Denman and Kauto Star in one of the greatest Gold Cups ever run.
In 2008, Imperial Commander romped home in today's showpiece, but did so under just 10st 7lb for a modest 139. To put that into context, Imperial Commander would carry a mere 10st 2lb off the same rating this afternoon.
As it is, off marks of 157, Grands Crus and Hunt Ball, market leaders for this two-mile-five feature, must shoulder 11st 6lb. They are undoubtedly two progressive horses that have plenty going for them but, while a theoretical question of whether or not either might be able to concede 18lb to Imperial Commander is fairly pointless, the fact remains that there could well be far better handicapped horses in opposition.
Of the three Irish-trained runners, Forpadydeplasterer may be the one most likely to have a bit in hand. Given that he is proven at a very high level, Tom Cooper's 10-year-old is making a belated handicap debut under Paddy Brennan off a very reasonable 150.
Still, he hasn't won since his famous Arkle Trophy coup here in 2009 and you suspect one or two others might prove a bit more tenacious in a scrap. With the Ruby Walsh-ridden Al Ferof burdened with a big weight, the two to keep on side are Nadiya De La Vega and Walkon.
Nadiya De La Vega, representing a potent Nicky Henderson-AP McCoy axis, isn't always the easiest to predict, but looked on fine terms with herself when scoring on her reappearance over course and distance last month.
Although she is 8lb higher now, she still has only 10st 8lb to carry, and remains open to improvement at just six years old.
It is Walkon, though, that appeals as being most leniently treated on his seasonal bow. Alan King's seven-year-old grey has an excellent record fresh, recording an emphatic victory on his fencing bow at Exeter 12 months ago, beating Zaynar and Notus De La Tour, which was then placed in Leopardstown Grade Ones behind Flemenstar and Blackstairmountain.
He didn't win thereafter, but that was no disgrace. At Newbury next time, he was held by the talented Cue Card and For Non Stop, a subsequent Grade One winner that finished third to Sir Des Champs at Cheltenham and won the Old Roan Chase at Aintree on its reappearance.
In a decent renewal of the RSA Chase at Prestbury Park in March, Walkon finished fifth behind Bobs Worth after showing up well for a long way, a run that left the impression that a drop back to today's trip would suit. Crucially, however, he was just a neck behind Grands Crus off level weights there, yet he receives a full stone off David Pipe's fellow grey now.
If you discount his subsequent Scottish Grand National flop, that is a considerable discrepancy. At a general 7/1, then, Walkon is value to provide King and Robert Thornton with their first win in this prestigious Grade Three on what is only his sixth start over fences.
Earlier, with AP McCoy expected to prove a suitably forceful partner, Charles Byrnes' Sea Of Thunder can turn the tables on Sire Collonges in the novice chase, while the Antrim native also has a chance on Tony Martin's Buy Back Bob in the last. In the long-distance handicap chase, Ashkazar has bundles of appeal as the form of his latest win has been well franked.
On that occasion at Cheltenham in April, David Pipe's charge excelled on his third start over fences in a similar contest. A 4lb hike takes Timmy Murphy's mount to 141, which compares favourably with the 152 that he won off here over hurdles in January 2011.
Best Bet: Ashkazar
Cheltenham Festival runner-up Boston Bob could make his fencing bow at Thurles on Thursday, but there is also a decent novice hurdle on the card that should prove informative.
Not unusually, Gigginstown Stud-owned entries are to the fore. The previously frustrating Shrapnel is the one we know most about, but his impressive Galway triumph over subsequent runaway winner Rory O'Moore on his debut for Gordon Elliott showed him in a new light.
Then there is Mouse Morris' Rule The World, which only narrowly lost its unbeaten status to the more experienced Our Vinnie at Cork. Rye Martini is another intriguing sort that could sport the maroon and white silks. Having beaten the classy Corbally Ghost in a Lismore 'point' last year, Colm Murphy's five-year-old ran out a decisive victor on his hurdling bow at Tipperary last month. All three youngsters are exciting prospects.