The story has unfolded slowly. More of slow-burner than soap opera. The jumps season kicked off last autumn. It looked for all the world that only injury or shoddy administrative staff would prevent Long Run from defending his 2011 Gold Cup. But events have conspired to give us a Gold Cup which – although lacking in immediacy – is every bit as intriguing as some of the classic renewals served up in recent years. Here’s a look at how the market has gone since October.
As seasoned Cheltenham watchers know, and novice fans need to learn, Gold Cups aren’t handed out in November, December or any other month that’s not March. That’s a blessing for Long Run because the evidence of his first two runs of the campaign didn’t scream ‘tap-in defence of his crown’. The ‘it was a prep run’ excuse was accepted when he lost to Kauto in the Betfair Chase, but it was less easily swallowed when it was wheeled out again at Kempton at Christmas. Nicky Henderson maintained it was simply part of a campaign designed to have him reach his peak in Cheltenham. Throughout the blips, Long Run’s price has remained steady, with a lack of proven performers snapping at his hooves affording some margin for error. His win last Friday in the Denman Chase eased some doubt. His jockey, Sam Waley-Cohen heaped praise on his mount by declaring: “He was brilliant. He jumped really well. He felt as well as he has ever felt.” But it wasn’t resounding enough to fully put the questions to bed. With age on Long Run’s side and the Cheltenham master Henderson gently guiding his progress, the public may be more willing to forgive than they normally would. His late run might yet be enough to defend his title.
Based on the market, this season was due to be sort of a lap of honour for one of the most successful and popular horses of all time. Kauto Star’s defeat of Long Run in the Betfair Chase was treated as the kind of heart-warming ‘old champ has one more day in the spotlight before heading for a retirement of grass-eating and getting stared at by strangers’ tale that so for often gets brought up in the horse racing media. He was neatly slotted into the betting at 12/1, almost more out of respect for his previous achievements rather than a genuine belief he could regain the Gold Cup all over again The ‘old-timer’s last hurrah’ line suffered another blow when Kauto claimed his 5th King George VI Chase at Kempton and with the Festival in sight, the thought of hi m winning another Gold Cup is far less Disney than once it was. The weight of goodwill behind him will see him talked up, but on the evidence of this season, Kauto is still capable.
The horse who has come like a bolt from the blue into the Gold Cup frame is Burton Port. He enjoyed a successful novice season before claiming second behind Diamond Harry in the Hennessy Gold Cup of 2010. Just when it looked like he was destined to be a major player in the division, Burton Port had a lengthy spell on the sidelines. It wasn’t quite a triumphant return, but it was almost as good as he nearly shocked the reigning Gold Cup champion at Newbury in the Denman Chase. He was within half a length of him at the finish and considering it was his first run in nearly a year and a half, it was hugely impressive, a fact not lost on his trainer, Nicky Henderson – “He has been amazing us all. I thought he was good before he got injured but his work at home has been so much better than it used to be.” If you’re looking for someone that’s slightly under the radar, you could do worse.
His wins in the Midlands Grand National and the Welsh Grand National hinted at a future in the marathon Grand National circuit of the jumps world, but when Synchronised side-stepped the defence of his Chepstow crown in favour of winning the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown in impressive fashion over Christmas, he suggested the shorter distances may yet be within his ability. He was plonked in to the Gold Cup betting at 10/1 after that victory, but that has drifted since possibly a more sober analysis of that performance. Synchronised clearly has the stamina not to be wheezing his way up the Cheltenham hill and that’s important, but his winning time was slow and he may lack the pace for the blood and thunder of a Gold Cup. That said, he’s likely to have AP McCoy doing the steering and if he gets the tactics he wants, there’s no better man at lifting the famous green and gold silks up the run-in.
For a horse almost universally dismissed as not having a chance of winning a Gold Cup, Midnight Chase has done an awful lot winning, and winning by some impressive margins at Cheltenham. The trouble is the questionable standard of the opposition he trounced on those occasions. For a long time Midnight Chase’s price was that of a horse who wouldn’t disgrace himself in a Gold Cup, but equally one that wasn’t there for anything other than a day out and some place money, something he achieved when 19 lengths behind Long Run last year. His win in the Argento Chase made a few people sit up and take notice however and almost immediately he went from being a dark horse to a slightly less dark horse for the race. It’s still hard to imagine him winning, but he’s good enough and a big enough price to make an each-way bet interesting
Quel Esprit’s reputation took a bit of a hammering during his novice chasing season when he spent more time on the turf than Alan Titchmarsh. The early signs were promising as he won in Limerick back almost a year and a half ago, but he followed that up with two falls and one unfortunate incident when a loose horse brought him down at Punchestown. Since then, Quel Esprit has been on a mission to rebuild his reputation and he’s had some success. He’s won three on the bounce now with his win in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown giving him and outside sniff of Gold Cup glory. The doubts arise based on the quality of that Hennessy, with less top quality stars than your average series of Celebrity Big Brother. Quel Esprit is young enough to still be improving, but the Festival will probably come too soon for the improvement he needs to be a factor.