Donn's Articles » Changing of the guard

Changing of the guard

The thing about the changing of the old guard is that it creeps up on you. You don’t easily see it coming until it is upon you. When did Roberto Mancini decide that Joe Hart was a better keeper than Shay Given? When did Colm Cooper fill the gaping hole in the Kerry team that Maurice Fitzgerald left?

It is the natural order of things. There comes a time in sport when the old established brigade becomes regressive, a downward spiral, the youngsters are naturally on an upward curve, at some point the two intersect and the order changes. In the blink of an eye. The king is dead, long live the king.

In racing, we generally don’t tend to believe it until after it has happened. When Moscow Flyer got beaten in the 2006 Champion Chase as a 12-year-old, he was sent off a well-backed 5/1 shot, despite the fact he had been beaten at long odds-on in his previous two races, and that only one 12-year-old had ever won the Champion Chase. When Istabraq got beaten in the 2002 Champion Hurdle as a 10-year-old, he was sent off the 2/1 favourite, even you have to go back to Sea Pigeon to find the previous 10-year-old winner.

The Sea Pigeon-Monksfield-Night Nurse Champion Hurdle era was brought to an abrupt halt by the 40/1 six-year-old For Auction in 1982. The golden Brave Inca-Hardy Eustace era came to an end when the 16/1 whipper-snapper Sublimity beat them both in 2007. Best Mate, Desert Orchid, even Arkle himself, there comes a time when your best performances are behind you. No matter how fast you are, you will never win the race against Father Time.

Kauto Star and Denman are putting up a good fight, mind you. Kauto kicked off his campaign this season by landing the Grade 1 Champion Chase at Down Royal, while Denman put up a huge performance in finishing third in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury last Saturday under 11st 12lb.

Imperial Commander isn’t as established within the established brigade as those two, but you cannot question his position at the top table. Last year’s upstart, gate-crasher of the Paul Nicholls 2010 Gold Cup party, he proved himself to be well over last season’s Cheltenham exertion and Aintree mis-hap when he landed the Betfair Chase at Haydock two weeks ago.

As a result of their respective seasonal debuts, all three horses’ odds for the Gold Cup have been cut. At best odds, they now take out almost 50% of the market – even money one of them wins it, even money one of them doesn’t – and that may not be an accurate reflection of their relative chances.

Kauto Star and Denman will both be 11 in March, and no horse aged older than 10 has won the race since What A Myth in 1969. Even Imperial Commander will be up against the stats as a 10-year-old, given that Cool Dawn in 1998 is the last 10-year-old to win it. Since 1998, 54 horses aged 10 or older have run in the Gold Cup, and all 54 have come up short. See More Business, Looks Like Trouble, Beef Or Salmon and Kauto Star last year were all sent off as favourite, and the best that any of the four could manage was See More Business’s fourth placing in 2000.

That is not to detract from the achievements of any of these three. They are three of the best staying steeplechasers of this era. Kauto Star in particular will rightly be remembered as one of the greatest National Hunt horses of all time. However, to ask him to win another Gold Cup at the age of 11 is a huge ask.

He may not have been as good as ever at Down Royal last time. The Racing Post Rating of 164 that he was awarded for winning there – and he looked all out to do so – is his lowest since he won the same race in 2008, and that was only because the opposition was so weak two years ago. Runner-up that day was Light On The Broom, an 11-year-old who was officially rated 45lb his inferior. Before that, you have to go back to the 2007 Aon Chase to find a lower rating, 14 completed runs previously, when he struggled to beat L’Ami by a neck.

The King George is a different matter. Wayward Lad and Desert Orchid, both, like Kauto Star, King George specialists, won it as 10-year-olds, and in the last 10 years the older generation have won it once from just 21 attempts. Indeed, in 2003 when Edredon Bleu won it as an 11-year-old, the 10-year-olds Tiutchev and First Gold chased him home. You can be sure that Paul Nicholls will have Kauto primed for Kempton on 26th December, and he has a huge chance of landing an unprecedented fifth King George on the bounce, but if he does, don’t be fooled by the bookmakers’ inevitable slashing of his Gold Cup odds into thinking that his chance of winning at Cheltenham has been enhanced.

The challengers to the old guard are lining up. Cooldine and Sizing Europe and Punchestowns and Long Run are all waiting in the wings. Also, five second-season chasers went to post in the Hennessy last Saturday and two of them filled the first two places. Diamond Harry oozed class in winning the race, travelling like the most likely winner from a long way out and finding plenty on the run-in, while Burton Port stayed on like a lion to chase him home, despite making what should have been a chance-ending mistake at the fifth last.

Denman was conceding 26lb and 25lb respectively to that pair, he comes out the best horse in the race on the weight-for-distance scale, but the youngsters pulled 14 lengths clear of him. Also, the 2008 Gold Cup winner just didn’t seem to turn the screw on his rivals down the back straight, he wasn’t able to grind them down with his relentless gallop, as he had done in 2007 and in 2009 when he won the race, carrying 11st 12lb both times.

More than that, however, is the fact that Diamond Harry and Burton Port are progressive. Denman is a lot of things, but he is not progressive. At some stage, probably before next March, the upward curve and the downward spiral will intersect, that is if they haven’t already. Get ready for a new order.

© The Sunday Times, 5th December 2010