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Novices in Gold Cup

Conventional wisdom dictates that you can’t win the Cheltenham Gold Cup with a novice chaser. Actually, you shouldn’t even try. Race novices against fellow novices. Freshmen of the jumping game, allow them grow in shallow waters, well away from the ocean of championship races. Minors play against minors, novices have no business running in the Gold Cup. You can’t win anything with kids.

It was hardly surprising, however, when David Pipe said after Grands Crus won the Feltham Chase at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day that his exciting novice chaser would be given an entry in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

David Pipe is a son of Martin Pipe, and, as a racehorse trainer, Martin Pipe was to conventional wisdom what Galileo was to, well, conventional wisdom. Not only did Pipe choose not to comply with the accepted norms of the day, he actively sought to challenge them.

Pipe revolutionised the art of training National Hunt racehorses like few others before or since. It was he who determined that he could get his horses race-fit on the gallops at home at Pond House so that, when he brought them to the racecourse, they could be competitive against other trainers’ superior horses because they had a fitness advantage. After initial skepticism about his methods and inevitable jealousy, other trainers had no option but to embrace Pipe’s methodology.

He beat a path across the Channel to buy precocious French-breds so that he could exploit the generous weight concession that younger horses enjoyed in Britain. He won the Arkle with the five-year-old Champleve in 1998, the first five-year-old to win the race in almost 30 years, and catalysed a change in the National Hunt weight-for-age scale. He ran the juvenile Hors La Loi in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in 1999 instead of in the Triumph Hurdle, the race for juveniles, exploiting the 8lb that juveniles received from their elders.

And yes, Pipe ran novices in championship races.

He won the Tote Gold Trophy in 1997 with the novice Make A Stand, he won the Champion Hurdle the following month with the (same) novice Make A Stand, and he won the 2000 Racing Post Chase with the novice Gloria Victis.

Of course, these ventures haven’t been without their dark sides. The Pipe-trained novice Cyborgo finished well behind Mr Mulligan in the 1997 Gold Cup, and, just three weeks after he had galloped his more experienced rivals into the ground in the Racing Post Chase, Gloria Victis’s life came to an abrupt and untimely end when he fell fatally at the second last fence in the Gold Cup.

When people argue that David should not run Grands Crus in the Gold Cup this year, it is to the Gloria Victis incident that they invariably refer. However, desperately sad though the demise of such a young and talented racehorse was, it wasn’t running in the Gold Cup that killed him. His rider AP McCoy was of the opinion that it was an injury that caused his horse to fall, not the fall that caused his injury. If he had run against fellow novices in the Sun Alliance Chase that year instead of in the Gold Cup, while we will never know for certain, it is difficult to argue that the same lamentable fate would not have befallen him.

They were running novices in the Gold Cup long before Martin Pipe came along. Bobby Beasley won the race in 1974 on Captain Christy. The Pat Taaffe-trained gelding was the last novice to land the Gold Cup, but Dorans Pride finished third in the race as a novice in 1997, and Dawn Run was a novice in all but the strictest sense of the word – she lost her novice status by winning her sole race the previous season – when she won the Gold Cup in 1986.

Of course, David Pipe is not Martin Pipe, David Pipe is his own man, one of the top trainers in Britain in his own right, Grand National-winning trainer. However, it is only natural that the son should be influenced by the father’s modus operandi. Also, Martin never won a Cheltenham Gold Cup – you can be certain that it is sky high on David’s list of objectives.

Running contrary to conventional wisdom is the notion that it is possible that Grands Crus will never have a better chance to win a Gold Cup. Strike while the iron is hot, and Grands Crus is hot. If he were to run against novices in the RSA Chase this year, wait until 2013 to contest the Gold Cup, who knows what changes would occur in the 361 days that separate one Cheltenham Festival from the next?

He does lack experience, he has raced just three times over fences, but what he lacks in experience, he makes up for in potential for progression. A top class staying hurdler last season, the only horse who could even get close to Big Buck’s, he jumps fences so well and so accurately that it would be surprising if he didn’t make up into an even better steeplechaser. He has jumped 52 fences in public in his life, 16 of them at Cheltenham, and he has made just one mistake.

The son of Dom Alco has improved for each of his three runs over fences, his most impressive performance coming on his most recent outing, when he beat Silviniaco Conti and Bobs Worth in the Feltham Chase on King George day at Kempton last month. His jumping was really accurate that day, he showed impressive pace to go clear before the home turn, and he stayed on well all the way to the line.

Significantly, Grands Crus clocked a time that was 2.8secs faster than the time that Kauto Star clocked in beating Long Run in the King George, run over the same course and distance 70 minutes later. It was the first time in over a quarter of a century that the Feltham Chase was run in a faster time than the King George.

They did go fast early on in this year’s Feltham, and that obviously helped the final time, but Kauto Star was able to claw back just one of the near four-second time-deficit on Grands Crus from the first fence in the back straight to the winning line, despite the fact that he was pushed all the way by Long Run.

It may be that this year’s staying novice chasers are an exceptional bunch. In a parallel universe at Leopardstown over Christmas, the novice Last Instalment posted a faster time in winning the Fort Leney Chase than Synchronised posted in winning the Lexus Chase. Last season’s King George and Gold Cup hero Long Run is obviously top class, but in two runs this season to date, it looks like he may not have progressed from six to seven, which would not be that outlandish given that he is one of those precocious French-bred horses, and that he had raced 15 times before he reached his fifth birthday. And, while it may be dangerous to suggest that Kauto Star can’t be as good at the age of 12 as he once was, unless he really is L’Extraterrestrial (which isn’t a 66/1 shot), it is fairly safe to assume that, at best, he probably isn’t progressing.

On top of that, the evidence that we have to date suggests that the second-season staying chasers are not a vintage bunch. There could be an opportunity this year for a top class first-season chaser. It may be that you can win things with kids after all.

© The Sunday Times, 15th January 2012