Just like the word ‘Festival’, the phrase ‘Gold Cup’ really means only one thing to a fan of horse racing at this time of the year – the pinnacle of the jumping game. Steeped in history and the ultimate test of a steeplechaser, no race in the calendar (with the possible exception of the Grand National) gets close to arousing the same level of fervour and anticipation.
The Gold Cup has a special place in my heart because it was Thursday 15 March 1990 that I knew this sport had me forever. It was a moment so preposterous that it could only reside in that exquisite intersection of naive optimism and unbridled fantasy. Norton’s Coin was the Leicester City of his day, representing the absurd realisation of the monkeys and Shakespeare theory – if you dare to dream, and go to the well enough times, outrageous things can happen. A 100/1 winner of the Gold Cup – never happened before, and will never happen again?
27 years on, and my look at the ante-post markets has again been overshadowed by the withdrawals of many leading fancies. We had already lost previous winners Coneygree and Don Cossack, as well as the ill-fated Vautour from the line up, and yesterday dealt another hammer blow to the hopes of some ante-post punters and many purists when favourite Thistlecrack was ruled out. If the 3 miles 2 furlongs and 22 fences of the Gold Cup can prove attritional, the months leading up to the 2017 incarnation have proved more so.
I too mourn the absence of those in the list because the contest is diminished. It is possible (certain in the case of poor Vautour) that we shall never know who is the best of this sublime peer group, an electrifying mixture of proven superstars and talented youth. But from a detached punting perspective, to me Thistlecrack was opposable and was doing a damn good job of keeping value in the odds of the other contenders.
So we are left with a straight shootout between the other two Tizzard horses, Cue Card and Native River? Not quite, because the Gold Cup is never that simple, but they are a good place to start and both have excellent chances.
A victory for the popular Cue Card would be emotional and he looks to be an out and out stayer nowadays which should suit the rigours of the Gold Cup. He was soundly beaten by Thistlecrack in the King George but I suspect three miles around Kempton is sharp enough for him now. However, the last six times he has raced on good ground he has been beaten (although one of those was last year when he was going ominously well before falling three out) so you are taking a chance with the going come the Friday of Festival week.
Native River is the young pretender, four years younger than his stablemate, and has developed into a gutsy stayer this season. He has been beaten at the last two Festivals, but not by much last year in the four-miler, and it is the progress that he has made that justifies 3/1 favouritism. The manner of his last two victories has been very impressive. However, I’ve already backed him at 8/1 in a double with Finian’s Oscar so won’t be going in again now.
The Irish challenge is headed by Djakadam, second the last two years to Don Cossack and Coneygree, but if anything his form seems slightly regressive. In fact, the Irish form as a whole looks in a bit of a heap, with five of them very closely matched from the Irish Gold Cup a few weeks ago. Sizing John won that, and he is certainly of interest now stepped in distance, but he will have to improve again to factor.
So it looks like it comes down to the front two in the betting. But last night I dared to dream again. It was the match up that we wanted as Cue Card tracks Native River down the hill, around the final bend and over the second last. Now we would see who was best. Then almost imperceptibly I notice a third horse creeping around the inside. It’s almost like double-vision because he seems to have the same colours as Cue Card. It’s 1990 all over again as the 100/1 outsider sweeps past at the final fence. His name is Theatre Guide.
And then I woke up, and realised that I was trying to manufacture a fairytale to rival the great fable of 1990. That’s the thing about fairytales – they don’t happen very often, and they are fiendishly difficult to predict. Sure some people backed Norton’s Coin and Leicester City, and I’m sure some people will back Theatre Guide, but he won’t win the Gold Cup. Cue Card will, if there is soft in the going description.
Advice – if you like fairytales, Theatre Guide is 150/1 with William Hill. Otherwise, I would wait until the day to assess the going and stable form, as I don’t think either price on the front two will shorten too much now and there could be some decent offers around.