Donn's Articles » Gold Cup meanderings

Gold Cup meanderings

As marketing opportunities go, they don’t make them any bigger than Cheltenham Gold Cup 2010, Kauto Star v Denman, The Decider, the culmination of the trilogy. The fragility of the equine beast is such that the founding of an entire marketing campaign around a horse, banking on its continued fitness and wellbeing, can be fraught with anxiety, not to mind doubling your exposure by putting all your eggs into the ‘duel’ basket. However, this is so big that to not do so would be to spurn a massive opportunity for Cheltenham 2010 in particular – even Cheltenham has to sell itself in these chastened times – and for horse racing in general.

Admittedly this duel lacks the national rivalry that Arkle v Mill House engendered, but it has everything else. The two best staying steeplechasers of modern times, so good that comparisons with Himself are not laughed off the bar stool; the score set at one-all, both previous encounters at Cheltenham, both in Gold Cups past; contrasting styles, one laden with pace, enough pace to win two Tingle Creeks, a speedster whose turn of foot is his most potent weapon, the other a tank, a mullucker, who just gallops and turns the vice grip, a grinder; one a dual Gold Cup winner, the only horse ever to win the Gold Cup crown back after losing it, and a quadruple King George winner, the only horse in history to win four in a row, the other a Gold Cup winner and a dual Hennessy winner, both Hennessys won under 11st 12lb, the most recent off a mark of 174, a mark off which you simply don’t run in handicaps these days. Remarkably, neither horse has finished out of the first two in a combined total of 38 completed starts in the UK and Ireland, most of those at the highest level and one of them after falling. We are dealing in the extraordinary here, once-in-a-generation stuff.

And don’t think for a second that, just because they are housed under the same roof, boxed next door to each other, that those closest to them are largely non-plussed about who wins as long as one of them does. Witness the in-the-moment post-race comments of Harry Findlay and of the characteristically reticent Paul Barber after Denman won the Hennessy in November, and Clive Smith after the King George. This battle is not of strategic or national significance – it’s much more important than that.

Common consensus is that Kauto Star wasn’t at his best when Denman beat him in the 2008 Gold Cup, and Denman certainly wasn’t at his best – fibrillating heart set straight – when Kauto beat him in 2009, yet still both were able to find a way to finish second. Such is the gulf between the Ditcheat Duo and their peers. Peerless, actually.

The roles that the humans have played in all of this sometimes, quite understandably, goes under the radar, overshadowed by the horses, which is how it should be, but while you need the equine talent to begin with – you can’t go without the horse – you also need to manage that talent, harness it, time its release. Sam Thomas came of age with Denman in his 2007/08 annus mirabilis, while Ruby Walsh just makes things look so easy on both. Don’t be fooled into thinking that anyone could have won those four King Georges on Kauto Star, so easy did the victories look. That’s how the truly talented make things look.

Paul Nicholls’s performance in the management of both careers has been exemplary, patience personified in coaxing Denman back to full fitness after his heart missed that beat (actually, they do come back), fastidious in the planning of Kauto’s every step. When Kauto ran a little flat in the 2008 Gold Cup, the trainer suggested that it had been his own fault for running him in the Ascot Chase in February. Last season, he didn’t run between the King George and the Gold Cup. This year, similar story. There’s no point in getting older if you are not going to get wiser.

So what will happen if, all going well, they both line up, fit and healthy and ready to run for their lives, at Cheltenham on 19th March? Denman will probably race handily under AP McCoy or Sam Thomas (Ruby couldn’t desert Kauto, could he?), that’s for sure, he will either lead from flagfall or not long thereafter, Kauto and Ruby will stalk, keeping a close eye, ideally a closer eye than they were able to keep in 2008. Denman will press on, increasing the tempo all the time, over the water, over the open ditches, up to the top of the hill, and down. Kauto will sit in his slipstream (easy to visualise, isn’t it?) until the home straight at least, pull wide on the approach to the second last and try to go past between the final two fences. Then what? Fireworks.

Are there chinks? There are, but you have to look hard. The main fear is that both horses are 10 years old. No 10-year-old has won the Gold Cup since Cool Dawn won the race in which See More Business was carried out in 1998. In the 10 renewals since, 31 10-year-olds have run – some of them well fancied, including Looks Like Trouble in 2002 and See More Business in 2000 – and only two have been placed. If you had had €1 each-way on every one of them, you would be showing a net loss of €40, this despite the fact that Go Ballistic was second in 1999 at 66/1. These are no ordinary 10-year-olds for sure but, from a betting perspective, the age stat is worth bearing in mind when you are staring at combined odds of no better than 1/3 at current best prices.

Cooldine could bounce back from his disappointing run in the Lexus, from which he returned a sick horse, and Imperial Commander could improve enough again, returned to Cheltenham, to latch onto the coat-tails of the big two. But this duel is one to savour, the conjecture and hypothesising and the banter and the build-up as much as the actual race. We are unlikely to witness something like this again for a long time, so we should hope with every sinew of our being that they both arrive on Gold Cup day with everything intact.

And we should wallow in it.

© The Irish Field, 16th January 2010