The two icons of our chasing calendar (Grand National aside, of course) sit 100 miles and 12 weeks apart, yet they are inseparable as landmarks in the continuum of our jumps season. In between them lay the hopes and aspirations of thousands of punters, strewn along the rocky road to Festival glory.
Let’s start with an in-depth look at the Boxing Day Battle of Kempton, and where better to begin the analysis than with the worthy winner, Cue Card. Trainer Colin Tizzard reports him a different horse this year after an operation on a trapped epiglottis, and he is certainly finishing off his races better, which gives hope for the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March and the glittering £1 million bonus previously only attained by the great Kauto Star.
Many have commented that Don Cossack was eye-catching when coming down at the second last, but for my money he was jumping scratchily, was on and off the bridle throughout, and not many can win Gold Cups that way, although he was certainly staying on strongly when he fell which is a positive.
The forgotten horse of the race in some ways is the brave and supremely talented Vautour, who took it up early and had them all on the stretch two furlongs from home. Jockey Ruby Walsh said that in hindsight he would have conserved a little more energy on the horse’s first attempt at three miles, and he certainly appeared to not quite stay the distance, but an alternative view is that he was in front a long way and just got mugged on the line by Cue Card.
Whatever your interpretation of the race, is was a fascinating renewal and whets the appetite for the Festival that is now less than nine weeks away. But where does it leave us in terms of the Gold Cup?
The first thing to note is that the two races are entirely different beasts, and as such it is unsurprising that for the last horse to do the double in the same year you have to go back to, again, Kauto Star in 2009. Kempton’s sharp, right-handed three miles reward the speedier types, whilst Cheltenham’s left-handed undulations over three and a quarter favour real stayers. At least that is the theory, although the Festival often chooses to throw out the rulebook to wallow in outrageous fortune and unbridled fairytale.
It is worth noting that the last four winners of the jumping crown were all eight years old, although the first three had more experience than the novice Coneygree. Despite the frustrating absence of our 2015 champion, this could be a vintage renewal and, whilst I wouldn’t entirely rule out a big-odds shock winner (remember Lord Windermere was 20/1 when winning less than two years ago), it is surely sensible to look towards the head of the market.
Don Cossack 5/1
Don Poli 6/1
Cue Card 7/1
Road To Riches 16/1
No More Heroes 16/1
It is hard to argue with the credentials of favourite Djakadam, who has flown somewhat under the radar with a quiet preparation from the mercurial Mullins, and he did amazingly well last year to finish just a length and a half behind Coneygree. A year older and a bit wiser, his one run so far this season told us he was in grand order but not much more, yet he remains the one to beat purely on last year’s form.
But he looks a bit skinny at 7/2 to me, and if you fancy him you have to fancy Road To Riches who finished only two lengths behind Djakadam despite mixing it with Coneygree most of the way and only tiring up the hill. Somehow, I don’t see Road To Riches as a Gold Cup winner, although that will probably come back to haunt me as the peerless Pricewise has just tipped him ante-post.
And I don’t want to be taking the two Dons at 5/1 and 6/1 respectively, either. Pundits argue that the Cossack version had a messy run in the King George, but I think his jumping created most of the problems and could well do again in this supreme test of a jumper. In addition, his two previous runs at Cheltenham have not enhanced his claims. Don Poli is harder to assess, as he certainly jumps and stays, but a half-length defeat of First Lieutenant in the Lexus just doesn’t seem good enough to me.
Could it be Cue Card to triumph, one of the most popular horses in training? It would certainly be an emotional victory as owner Bob Bishop, who was present at Kempton to see his charge win the King George, passed away just a few days later. I think 7/1 could be value given his transformation this season, but he was hammered twice by Don Cossack last season so you are taking 7/1 that those defeats were due solely to his (seemingly cured) breathing problems.
So what is the bet? Well, if I knew that for sure, I wouldn’t be writing this on a computer that should have been thrown in a skip years ago. However, with the major firms offering non-runner no-bet on the Festival’s championship races already, I’m willing to risk that Vautour could be as good as he appears at 8/1 in places.
Backing possible non-stayers in the Gold Cup is the fast way to the poor house, as my beloved One Man taught me twenty years ago, but he can be scintillating at his fences and has at least proved himself twice in the fierce crucible of competition that is Prestbury Park in March. Perhaps if his rider, be that Ruby or whoever, can stretch them down the back on the second circuit with his fearsome cruising speed, and then get a breather into him down the hill, he has a chance.
As usual, calling the result of the Gold Cup in January is fiendishly difficult (it’s pretty tricky on the day!) and only in nine weeks time shall we know the answer for sure. There will be hard luck stories and joyful celebrations, hopes crushed and theories vindicated. But for the moment all we can do is guess, pretend to ourselves that it is an educated one, and if brave/crazy enough, put a little of our hard-earned cash where our mouths are. For all my pontificating and supposedly rational analysis, I just like Vautour. Perhaps that is reason enough.