Grand occasion at Sandown
Forever associated with the brewing company Whitbread, who became the sport’s first commercial sponsor over half a century ago, the Bet365 Gold Cup has long been one of the season’s highlights, with fine weather often adding to the spectacle of a big field of high-class handicappers jumping Sandown’s iconic fences.
One other icon we’ve come to take for granted is the indomitable Tony McCoy, who hangs his riding boots for the last time after this meeting.
The “Whitbread” is steeped in history, producing some of the most memorable finishes in the history of jump racing, from the duel between stable companions Taxidermist and Mandarin in 1958, through Arkle’s stunning success under a crushing twelve stone seven exactly half a century ago, to the most thrilling finish I’ve ever seen in a jumps race, in which the Queen Mother’s Special Cargo beat the dual winner Diamond Edge and Lettoch in a three-way photo.
For anyone who has got into the sport in recent years, it’s in your interest to dig out the footage on YouTube – it’s horse racing’s equivalent of It’s A Wonderful Life.
Whether the 2015 running will prove so emotional is debatable, with the retiring champion jockey without a ride, but it’s sure to be a spectacle as usual, and a maximum field of twenty are set to line up.
Top weight is carried by Grand National disappointment Rocky Creek, but that one is hard to fancy now racing off his correct mark (was 9 lb lower at Aintree), and it appears he’s helping compress the weights for Paul Nicholls’ other three entries, of whom Unioniste appears to be the stable’s number one on riding arrangements.
In truth, though, none of the quartet have been campaigned with this race in mind, and it might be worth looking elsewhere.
Former Gold Cup winner Bob’s Worth has plenty to prove after failing to complete in the latest renewal, and the obvious pick at the higher end of the weights is the progressive Le Reve, who was a fine second to Rocky Creek in the BetBright Chase at Kempton in February, and now meets that rival on significantly better terms (8 lb better off for a six-length beating, and has been rested since with this race in mind).
He’s also shown his liking for this track when beating Theatrical Star in January, for all that form’s not worked out particularly well.
He’s sure to give his running despite creeping up the weights, and can be relied upon to show his form.
One who is less certain to be in co-operative mood is Grand Jesture, but there is no better handicapped horse in the race than Henry de Bromhead’s son of Gold Well, who was on his best behaviour when chasing home The Druid’s Nephew at Cheltenham last month. The 7-y-o is open to further progress, and his sound jumping will be an asset.
The expected good ground is also expected to suit, and he swerved the Irish National on Easter Monday due to the heavy going. He has shown signs of temperament before his races, including at Cheltenham, but has always been entirely willing when getting underway, so the only concern is the vague possibility of a false start, which could play against him.
Roalco de Farges was second in this contest as a youngster before missing more than a season, and he came back to form when second to Creevytennant at Ascot last time.
That was in a veterans’ chase, but third-placed Wayward Prince showed that ignoring such contests is folly by winning last weekend’s Scottish National. The grey failed to last four miles when running in that contest last spring, but might just get home at this shorter trip. It’s also encouraging to see so many of Philip Hobbs’ runners finishing the season in good form.
Another veteran in the shape of The Package bounced back to form when winning the Kim Muir last month, and is worth bearing in mind given how lightly raced he has been in recent years, but he is up in the weights again, and needs to pull out a little more to win this stronger contest.
Selection: Grand Jesture
Alternative: Roalco de Farges