Donn's Articles » Gold Cup picture
Gold Cup picture
It was in 1983 that Ashley House stayed on to take fifth place in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, behind his four stable companions Bregawn, Captain John, Wayward Lad and Silver Buck, thereby completing an unprecedented 1-2-3-4-5 for his 33-year-old trainer Michael Dickinson in the blue riband event of National Hunt racing.
The enormity of the achievement was appreciated at the time, a place in the Guinness Book of World Records secured. They said that it would probably never be repeated, and it hasn’t been, not yet anyway, not in the 32 renewals that have flowed under the bridge since. Dickinson’s over-riding message at the time, however, was of the difficulty that he had faced in getting five horses just to run in the Gold Cup, of the pressure that he felt he was under to get them all there, healthy and well and ready to run their races.
The words of the man the Americans call the Mad Genius came rolling through the decades this week as Coneygree, Don Cossack and Valseur Lido were all ruled out of the 2017 Timico Gold Cup.
Coneygree has only run twice since he won the Gold Cup in 2015. He is obviously a hugely talented steeplechaser, but he is also a fragile sort who was in a race against time to be ready for this year’s renewal. Then on Monday, trainer Mark Bradstock admitted defeat: Coneygree would not even be entered in the 2017 Gold Cup.
Don Cossack and Valseur Lido are different to Coneygree and different from each other: Don Cossack the proven champion, last year’s Gold Cup hero, the title-holder; Valseur Lido a whipper-snapper by comparison, still on an upward trajectory.
Don Cossack was returning from injury, slowly slowly making progress under the careful direction of Gordon Elliott, trainer and owners Gigginstown House growing more optimistic with each passing day. Then on Wednesday the 10-year-old had a slight setback, and they decided to draw stumps. You could persevere, but why would you take the risk? He doesn’t owe anybody anything, he has achieved the ultimate objective in winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and much more besides. He deserves his happy retirement.
Valseur Lido was on track. He had been beaten in the Lexus Chase when we last saw him, but it was significant that neither owner nor trainer Henry de Bromhead were deviating from the Gold Cup path. It probably wasn’t his true running, and he deserved his chance to prove as much.
With the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown next month as his next intended engagement, the Gigginstown House horse was doing a routine canter on Friday morning when he suffered a fracture to his cannonbone. He was immediately taken to Fethard Equine Hospital for an operation.
His season may be over, but hopefully his racing career is not.
The defections punch holes in the Gold Cup picture. It leaves the potential field weaker than it was a week ago, and bookmakers have reacted accordingly. Thistlecrack was shortened, Native River was shortened, Djakadam was shortened.
The Colin Tizzard horses continue to dominate the market and, given that he has five horses entered in the race, there is even muffled talk of a Dickinson-esque challenge. Thistlecrack obviously consolidated his position as market leader with his commanding performance in the King George on St Stephen’s Day. Then Native River ran his rivals ragged in the Welsh National the following day, and was declared Thistlecrack’s chief threat.
The talk of Cue Card being rerouted to the Ryanair Chase seems to have abated a little. He didn’t run his race in the King George, appears to be the emerging sentiment. And he was travelling so well when he came down at the third last fence in the Gold Cup last year, he may deserve another shot at it.
The Tizzard quintet is completed by Alary and Theatre Guide. New recruit Alary has never run in Britain, but he was only just beaten in a Grade 1 chase over three and a half miles at Auteuil in November, and his debut for Tizzard – probably in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock next Saturday – is eagerly anticipated.
Theatre Guide is a high-class handicap chaser. Twice placed in the Hennessy and winner of a good handicap chase at Cheltenham in December, an official rating of 153 tells you that he probably has more than a stone to find with his three stable companions. Think Ashley House.
The Champion Hurdle picture also awaits consolidation. We have not seen the two horses who dominate the market yet this season.
Annie Power has not raced in public since she won the Aintree Hurdle last April, Faugheen hasn’t raced since he won the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in January last year. Fortunately, both horses are trained by Willie Mullins, so you don’t have to be unduly concerned about race fitness.
Remember that Annie Power raced just once last season before she went to Cheltenham and won the Champion Hurdle. Faugheen raced just twice in 2014/15 before his Champion Hurdle victory. And keep in mind too that we rarely saw Quevega between Punchestown in April and Cheltenham in March 11 months later, yet she accumulated the remarkable tally of six Mares’ Hurdles at Cheltenham and four World Series Hurdles at Punchestown
Both Faugheen and Annie Power are reportedly healthy and well, both hold entries in the BHP Insurances Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in two weeks’ time. The trainer’s assistant and son Patrick said last week that they were just waiting for the pair of them to spark.
Petit Mouchoir has sparked. The Henry de Bromhead-trained gelding gave an indication of the magnitude of his progression in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle in November, when he came down at the third last flight when travelling like a winner. Then on the run around the home turn in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, he pulled clear of Nichols Canyon and threw himself headlong into the Champion Hurdle picture.
Yanworth has also sparked. Labelled a potential Stayers’ Hurdle candidate when he landed the Ascot Hurdle over two and a half miles in November, he showed two-mile pace when he landed the Christmas Hurdle under Barry Geraghty at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day, coming clear of The New One. JP McManus’ horse is a Champion Hurdle contender all right.
Brain Power was impressive in winning the Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle at Ascot last month, while last year’s County Hurdle winner Superb Story kept on well to win at Musselburgh on New Year’s Day on his seasonal return. Both horses are progressive six-year-olds, and either could step up in class for a Champion Hurdle. The pretenders are starting to circle.
Hopefully Faugheen and Annie Power will spark soon. There could be fireworks.
© The Sunday Times, 15th January 2017