The final Championship race we cover is the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup. Willie Mullins dominating the ante-post markets has been a common theme throughout our previous previews and once more Closutton-based horses are to the fore, but this contest has a far more open look to it despite the Irish champion trainer holding a strong hand.
With us currently betting 4/1 the field, who does Declan Rix fancy to win steeplechasing’s most prestigious race? He previews the race here.
2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup ante-post preview
Should they all get there, the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup could be one of the great races of our era. Such is the number of class horses entered, many racing fans are sure to be divided in the lead up to March.
Willie Mullins has yet to win the Gold Cup, it’s one of few big races missing from his bulging CV. He may not get many better chances to win the Blue Riband event than this year though; the Irish-based trainer houses numerous horses of quality with the undoubted ability to finally claim this prize.
Our traders feel Vautour, at this moment in time, is his best chance and currently price him at 9/2. This seven-year-old is already a dual-Cheltenham Festival winner having won the 2014 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the 2015 JLT Novices’ Chase. Owned by Rich Ricci, the horse now bids for a third win in as many years at this great Festival.
A son of Robin Des Champs, Vautour has been there and done it, it’s clear he comes alive at Prestbury Park. There are a couple of reasons for this, but the main factor over the last two campaigns in him dominating here, along with his latent ability, has been decent racing ground.
Trained in Ireland, it’s a rarity to experience such terrain during the winter and simply put, soft going blunts his brilliance. At Cheltenham in March however, he can really show himself off.
The left-handed nature of the course is another variable in allowing Vautour to perform well. As we’ve seen this season, at Ascot and Kempton, running right-handed is a bit of a hindrance, but such is his ability he can still perform to a top-class level.
The final influence in allowing this horse to reach the ceiling of his ability is down to his owner and trainer. Rich Ricci and Willie Mullins love having winners at the Cheltenham Festival and target their horses to reach peak fitness in March. So should Cheltenham produce good to soft or better ground come the Festival, there is absolutely no doubt Vautour is classy enough to win the Gold Cup.
While the case, he has one potential flaw and that’s stamina, usually a major prerequisite in winning Gold Cups. Having won the Grade 2 1965 Chase at Ascot over two miles and five furlongs in November, Vautour set himself up nicely for a first crack at three miles in the King George VI Chase at Kempton over Christmas.
The whole race went roughly according to plan only for him and Ruby Walsh to be collared close home by Cue Card in a race for the ages. Having moved liked the best horse for the vast majority of the race, it was disappointing to see him lose.
No doubt he was running out of petrol close home and now connections plan to tackle a trip two-and-a-half furlongs further means serious questions have to be asked of him staying on a stamina-sapping course. He’s good enough to win, but has one major question to answer.
Where a Gold Cup is concerned in isolation, the one horse that has nothing to prove is Djakadam (5/1), the 2015 race runner-up. Another entry owned by Rich Ricci and trained by Willie Mullins, like Vautour, Djakadam is also a seven-year-old.
Just six when the 2015 bridesmaid, there was a real feeling if the race didn’t leave its mark on an underdeveloped body, Djakadam would be a tough horse to beat if managing to line-up the following year.
Having started his season in brilliant fashion in the Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown – a race he won by 12 lengths – the son of Saints Des Saints quashed any worries of his wellbeing after a cruelling 2014/15 campaign.
The dream start to the season turned into a nightmare on his next start however, when falling in the BetBright Trial Chase at Cheltenham in late January when sent off a 5/6 favourite. Not only did he fall, in the incident he picked up a superficial wound to his chest which required stitching and at the time of writing, is a situation still being monitored.
This preparation is far from ideal and it’s hard to get away from his Cheltenham form figures of F2F. Three times he has visited the undulations of Prestbury Park and twice he has tasted the green pastures below his feet.
It’s a worrying fact and upon closer inspection of his jumping technique after his latest mishap, there appears to be little room for error. Counterintuitively however, Djakadam is actually a good jumper, he is quick and low, but he lives on the edge meaning mistakes are punished.
While Willie Mullins is mobhanded in his entries, he has eight in total, the final of his big guns to consider is Don Poli (5/1), the 2015 RSA Chase winner. Yet another seven-year-old, Gigginstown House Stud are in ownership of this three-time Grade 1 winner.
He broke his top-level maiden in landing the Topaz Novice Chase over Christmas at Leopardstown’s 2014 Festive meeting before going on to win at the Festival. Both victories came in dominant fashion despite the distances of five and six lengths respectively maybe not telling the whole story.
This idle horse is a handicapper’s nightmare to weigh up given his, what we’d describe as charming, nature. Don Poli is a horse that will do the bare minimum in winning as he showed when taking the 2015 RSA crown.
At the time we felt it was a pretty poor renewal, and still do to a degree, but Don Poli was much the best and has unsurprisingly upped his game since moving into open company this campaign. Having finished last season with a tame effort at Punchestown – he’d probably gone over the top – the son of Poliglote stared 2015/16 beautifully with a win at Aintree.
He’d beat last season’s Hennessy Gold Cup and Grand National winner Many Clouds by four lengths despite his saddle slipping. He did get 5lb from the runner-up, but one would have to have been happy with what can only be described as a Don Poli type victory: he jumped fine, raced lazily and won snugly.
Next time out he wouldn’t impress as much to the eye. Again Don Poli returned to Leopardstown over the Festive period, this time to contest the Grade 1 Lexus Chase. Beating a quickly approaching 11-year-old who was officially rated 147 in First Lieutenant didn’t get our pulse racing at the time, but on closer inspection, it was another solid victory.
On heavy ground, few horses would’ve impressed, but we were taken by the way he manged to pick up and beat the horses in third and fourth. Rated 160 and 157 respectively, Don Poli’s rider Bryan Cooper gave Foxrock and On His Own two big head starts on ground that would’ve suited his rivals more.
OK, granted, he eventually beat First Lieutenant, but while aging, Mouse Morris’s horse has always been a high-class performer and at least came into the race in form. Given a patient ride, there was a real sense of him picking up the pieces late as Don Poli was put into battle much earlier and probably paid the price late in the race.
Don Poli now goes straight to Cheltenham on the back of a break which is not a preferred route, but connections did this last season in winning the RSA so they are at least sticking to a winning formula.
Gigginstown House Stud will have, like Willie Mullins, have a number of bullets to fire at the Gold Cup. They already have a strong chance with Don Poli, but another Don, Don Cossack (9/2) has to be respected.
A horse his trainer Gordon Elliott has adored from day one, Don Cossack’s early career was stop-start. A high-class bumper horse he would disappoint the following season (2012/13) as a novice hurdler.
Quickly sent chasing in 2013/14, despite winning his maiden Grade 1 – the Drinmore Novice Chase – there was still a sense of underachievement from connections, especially Gordon Elliott. Beaten in his next three starts, one of which he fell at Cheltenham in the 2014 RSA Chase, he was called soft by some, but the nine-year-old would have the last laugh.
Don Cossack’s 2014/15 season could only be described as top-class. Having won six of his seven starts, including three Grade 1s – the son of Sholokhov finished the campaign as the highest rated chaser in training. What used to be a tall, weak horse was now a man and he was showing it on the track.
His wins at Aintree and Punchestown were exceptional. He’d easily beat Cue Card at the former track while the Gold Cup runner-up Djakadam proved no match for him at Punchestown. The only blip unfortunately came at the 2015 Cheltenham Festival when he could only finish third in the Ryanair Chase.
In the end, he did well to hit the placings having been badly hampered at the last fence, but he was beaten by the winner at the time and it all came from a bad peck at the 12th obstacle which put him on the back foot.
And there lies the worry with Don Cossack, his jumping. While he is far from a bad jumper, his mistakes and falls in the heat of Grade 1 competitive action are hard to get away from. He fell in the 2014 RSA, a peck cost him the 2015 Ryanair and his second last fence fall in the 2015 King George behind Cue Card and Vautour saw him crash out.
It was a shame too, because he was right in contention when coming down and there is little doubt, had he jumped the last two obstacles, he would have gone close to winning. And that’s the counter argument for Don Cossack, he is good enough and just as classy as any horse in this year’s Gold Cup.
Ireland have an imperious team in this year’s Blue Riband and it would be a small shock if the Emerald Isle didn’t win the Festival showpiece. The home challenge is led by Cue Card and Smad Place, the only two British contenders that look like putting it up to the Irish.
Of the two, Cue Card (6/1) is the more fancied runner if the betting is to be believed. Now ten-years-olds, Colin Tizzard’s inmate had always been a classy horse from day one, but this season has seen a remarkable renaissance.
Coming into the campaign Cue Card was already a four-time Grade 1 winner, a dual-Cheltenham Festival hero and boasted high-class place form. Even allowing for this, for a horse heading into the twilight stage of his career, this season has come as a small surprise.
It kicked off in fine style at Wetherby when winning the Charlie Hall Chase by just under four lengths. Beating Dynaste and Ballynagour isn’t Gold Cup endearing form, but it’s encouraging he improved on his next start when winning the Betfair Chase.
At Haydock, he turned over the hot favourite Silviniaco Conti by seven lengths and had Dynaste much further behind him than his previous start; his form now looked progressive and this victory was up there with anything he achieved in his early career wins.
His professional peak came over Christmas at Kempton however, a career best at the age of ten, when getting up in the dying strides to collar Vautour in the King George VI Chase. Beating Vautour while pulling 13 lengths of the third horse Al Ferof is top-class and Gold Cup-winning form. There was no fluke about it.
Heading to Cheltenham in March with his excellent course and Festival record – having won the 2010 Champion Bumper and 2013 Ryanair Chase – Cue Card has to be respected. The one worry we have though, is stamina. He’s very much in the same bracket as Vautour in that there is little doubt he stays three miles, but three miles two-and-a-half furlongs on a stamina-demanding course is another test.
One horse that will have little trouble with the Gold Cup demands is Smad Place. A classy hurdler without manging to bag a major prize he has taken his time to reach his current heights over larger obstacles.
This season has really been the grey’s breakthrough year, though. His bold jumping and resolute galloping win in the 2015 Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury was one of the performances of the season. Under Wayne Hutchison, the gallant grey was allowed to stride on after jumping ten or so obstacles. The rest, as they say, is history and Alan King’s charge went on to win by an impressive 12 lengths.
Just four weeks later he was asked to back up in the King George against Cue Card and Vautour, but failed to show his best and finished fourth beaten over 16 lengths. A mixture of connections getting the tactics wrong and the race coming too soon after his Newbury win suggests he didn’t show his best.
With Wayne Hutchison injured and Richard Johnson in the plate, the tactics that served him so well at Newbury were again employed next time out in the BetBright Trial Chase where he went on to win by 12 lengths from Many Clouds. Smad Place gave an exhibition in jumping and galloping and this sort of form means he is entitled to respect in this year’s Gold Cup.
Another horse that must be high on people’s shortlists is Road To Riches, the 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup third. Another string to the Gigginstown House Stud bow, this horse has done nothing but improve over the last 18 months.
Rated 145 in May 2014, Noel Meade’s inmate was officially as high as 167 last season, but is currently rated 165. Aged nine, there is no reason to suggest he can’t improve again or at the very least match last year’s form.
The bare figures suggest he has to improve to beat many of those that sit ahead of him in the market and that would put you off slightly. While a small concern, reading figures straight from paper, although official, can be dangerous and it must be said there is only one other horse in this year’s Gold Cup that has proven themselves in Blue Riband battle, Djakadam.
Willie Mullin’s charge did finish two lengths ahead of Road To Riches in last year’s Gold Cup, but there is a strong case to suggest Noel Meade’s horse shaped the better. Having chased the strong early fractions set by Coneygree, of which Djakadam took no early part in, Road To Riches appeared to have the runner-up’s measure approaching the last before he tired badly. All in all, it was a great effort on ground that probably suited Djakadam more.
He then went to Punchestown where he was convincingly beaten by Don Cossack, but despite running a fine race, it was clear he wasn’t at his best.
This season and been a start-stop campaign. The son of Gamut has only ran once when nicely winning the Clonmel Oil Chase. With the Noel Meade yard struggling at the time, connections weren’t totally satisfied with him, but he does reappear in the Irish Gold Cup on February 6 and that will tell us plenty about his Cheltenham aspirations.
Best of the Rest
It would come as a shock if none of the above won this year’s Gold Cup. The likes of Many Clouds, Valseur Lido and Saphir Du Rheu may not run here. Holywell was an excellent fourth in last year’s Gold Cup, but his form this season has completely tailed off. Gilgamboa doesn’t look good enough while Sir Des Champs is an ageing horse who has had physical problems.
If we were to nominate one at a big price to outrun his current odds, Wounded Warrior would be it. He was a solid third in last year’s RSA Chase before improving in Grade 1 company at Punchestown. His price is sexy, but it must be said, he’s facing a tough task and is another not certain to line up here.
The BetBright Verdict
A hugely intriguing Gold Cup this year with many class horses possibly lining up. Hopefully all get there safe and sound on the day and should that happen, we are in for a real treat. The fascinating element to the race is those that head the market all have different questions to answer despite being absolute class animals.
In terms of raw ability, Don Cossack and Vautour are best equipped to win, but we have concerns about both. Vautour’s stamina ebbing away once the field enter the home straight is a major concern for us. Willie Mullins’s horse looked a winner everywhere bar the line in the King George when he was collared late by Cue Card. He’ll have to run further and for longer in the Gold Cup and despite his brilliant Festival record is passed over.
The most likely winner at this stage for us is Don Cossack. He too has to prove his ability to stay this trip, but he shapes like he’ll get it and maybe even improve for the test. The one concern with him is his jumping and furthermore, his jumping at Cheltenham. Twice its let him down at the Festival, so at current prices is passed over.
Falling at Cheltenham is a feat Djakadam has managed twice, once at the Festival and once in the BetBright Trial Chase last week. That preparation coming into this race is far from ideal. On last year’s Gold Cup second he is the one to beat, but it’s hard to recommend the Willie Mullins horse on recent evidence.
The last ten-year-old winner of the Gold Cup was Cool Dawn back in 1998. This is a little trend that Cue Card will have to buck if he is to win. He is good enough to do so and comes here in rude health, but he is yet another we have stamina doubts about. The fact Colin Tizzard sends the son of King’s Theatre off an extended break is also a small concern given how keenly he can race.
The three to concentrate on, for various reasons, are Don Poli, Smad Place and Road To Riches. Don Poli, of all the market leaders has less questions to answer. The only debate is if he is good enough. He hasn’t been able to achieve the ratings Cue Card, Don Cossack and Vautour have, circumstances not really allowing him to do so, but such is his lazy nature this is no great surprise. He is sure to go close, but just doesn’t offer the value to get involved now.
The two we’ve got the race down to, from an ante-post perspective, are Road To Riches and Smad Place. The former has been there and done it in a Gold Cup, but has current well-being questions to answer while the latter is in rude health, but needs to up his game to win a Gold Cup.
Both are very similar in that they have the ability to go a sound gallop, maintain it and in the process jump fluently. Furthermore, both are nine-year-olds. Smad Place is not considered good enough by some to win a Gold Cup, but in a year with many ahead of him in the betting and official ratings having questions to answer, you rule him out at your peril. We really respect him, but at a slightly bigger price ROAD TO RICHES is given the nod.
His third place in last year’s Gold Cup was an impressive effort and for the vast majority of the race ran like the second best horse. All this despite the morning rain at Cheltenham scuppering his chance. He has form on soft ground, but connections really feel he is at his best on nice terrain. Should he get that this year, given how well he jumps, he can run another big race. Hopefully he shapes well in the Irish Gold Cup on Saturday February 5.
1pt each-way ROAD TO RICHES @12/1
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.
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