Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake has analysed the staying chase division and is surprised that a Grade 1 winner who has a festival victory to his name is a double-figure price for the blue riband event.

  • Monday 19 February
  • Blog
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Fascinating Cheltenham Gold Cup in prospect

Following the staying chase division this season really has been a roller coaster ride. At the outset of the campaign, it looked the most exciting division in the sport with the established top-class performers Sizing John, Native River, Coneygree and Thistlecrack facing the prospect of being tackled by the likes of Might Bite, Our Duke, Yorkhill, Road To Respect and Disko from last season’s exceptional crop of novice chasers.

However, what has transpired this season has been anything but what was expected, with only the previously enigmatic Might Bite having hit all his targets without having met with defeat. Though, while there have been many upsets and disappointments along the way, with the last of the trials having been run, what we are left with is a genuinely fascinating race in prospect that is sure to split opinion all the way up to the off time.

When weighing up the race, the only place to start is with the Nicky Henderson-trained Might Bite. There is no shortage of irony that it is only him that has hit all of his targets and gone through this season unbeaten thus far, as he came into this season with a reputation for unpredictability. That was primarily based on his never-to-be-forgotten display of essentially winning the RSA Chase twice either side of a sensational display of quirkiness on the run-in, but to be fair to him, there has been no sign of any such tendencies since then.

In terms of what he has achieved this season, one can only really have minor quibbles about him. He raced more freshly and jumped more exuberantly than ideal on his seasonal reappearance at Sandown, but ultimately saw off a high-class performer in Frodon with loads to spare. The King George VI Chase at Kempton was billed as the race that could confirm him as a superstar in the division and while he duly won, the underperformance of all his main rivals and his own idling resulting in rivals of questionable merit at the very highest level finishing on his tail led to a somewhat underwhelmed reaction from many.

While Might Bite has done what he needed to do (and arguably no more) this season, there are a couple of concerns regarding his chance in the Gold Cup. The first and lesser worry is his preparation. Nicky Henderson is a master at producing his best horses in peak form at the Cheltenham Festival, but given just how overly-exuberant Might Bite was on his seasonal reappearance, it must be considered a risk to send him to the Gold Cup without the benefit of a recent run to take that freshness out of him. The Gold Cup is a uniquely unforgiving test of stamina amongst Grade 1 staying chases and any inefficient exuberance will only make Might Bite’s task more difficult. It will be very interesting to see if Henderson chooses to give him a racecourse gallop prior to the Festival and it will be worth watching him closely if he does.

However, the biggest concern about Might Bite’s chance in the Gold Cup is that his quirkiness will re-emerge in it. Some will take his perfectly straightforward displays since the RSA Chase as an indicator that he has matured and that such quirkiness is no longer a factor for him, but it is a fact that Might Bite has looked his most quirky on the run-in at Cheltenham.

Everyone remembers his antics in the RSA Chase, but it is worth noting that he also put in a notably wayward performance on only other time he jumped the final obstacle in front at Cheltenham in a novice hurdle back in April 2015. On that occasion it was only that there was a running rail on the outside of the track that prevented him from veering right across it as he did in the RSA Chase. With the outside running rail in the Gold Cup disappearing with the better part of 200 yards left to run, Nico De Boinville is going to have to be at his best to keep Might Bite in check if is in contention at that stage.

Given that Might Bite has been put forward with the leading contender for the Gold Cup with the least questions to answer, that puts it into context just how many questions his rivals have to answer in the race this year.

The Colin Tizzard-trained Native River was very good on his belated seasonal reappearance at Newbury, but such a light preparation for a Gold Cup couldn’t be considered ideal. Barring the ground turns up soft on the day, he had his chance on Gold Cup day last year and fell short. He looks a solid contender, but will be vulnerable to one with a touch more class than himself.

Our Duke may have bounced back to winning ways at Gowran Park last Saturday, but having two runs in less than a fortnight with the second of them less than four weeks from the Gold Cup is surely far from ideal. As well as that, one has to question whether his sometimes ponderous jumping will stand up to the test that the Gold Cup presents. He shapes like one that might benefit from a very aggressive and positive ride, as his jumping seems to be at its worst when he is left to make up his own mind.

Race replay: Irish Gold Cup, Leopardstown, February 2018.

Killultagh Vic may well have the talent to win a Grade 1 staying chase, but it is a huge ask for any horse to win a Gold Cup on just their fourth run over fences after their third run resulted in a crashing fall. He will also have to prove his stamina for the Gold Cup trip.

Enough of the negatives, let’s talk about those with positives attached to them. First of all, last year’s winner Sizing John. The eight-year-old enjoyed one of the fullest and finest campaigns put together by any horse in the staying chase division in recent times last season and looked set to continue where he had left off when he made a winning seasonal reappearance in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase in December.

However, the race sectionals suggested that was perhaps a more gruelling race than many had assessed it as at the time and having been backed up just 18 days later for the Leopardstown Christmas Chase he ran a flat race and was found to be clinically abnormal post-race. Jessica Harrington has given him plenty of time to recover from that and choosing to send him straight to the Gold Cup appeals as being the right decision in the circumstances. His liking for the course and distance is well established and it wouldn’t surprise to see him return to the form that saw him win last year’s renewal of the race.

The other one that makes appeal is the Noel Meade-trained Road To Respect. The seven-year-old was a slow burner as a novice chaser last season, but finished his campaign with a bang by bolting up in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival and beating the wayward Yorkhill to win the Ryanair Gold Cup at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival. While much of the focus in the aftermath of the latter contest was on Yorkhill seemingly having thrown the race away by jumping out to his left, not for the first time Road To Respect did his share of jumping out to the left which didn’t help his cause either.

The son of Gamut has shown further improvement in his three starts this season, with his close second to Outlander in the Champion Chase at Down Royal exhibiting the promise of more to come given that he had again shown a tendency to jump out to his left. That promise was duly realised when he was returned to a left-handed track in a first-time hood in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase where he reversed form with Outlander and saw off Balko Des Flos with a bit to spare.

While Road To Respect will have to prove his stamina for the Gold Cup course and distance, he appeals as one that should stay the trip just fine. As well as that, there is every chance that the way Cheltenham is set up will set him even better than Leopardstown, as his tendency to jump left has remained evident at left-handed tracks and that there is a running rail on the immediate inside of the fences at Cheltenham will be a help that he doesn’t get the benefit of at Leopardstown. That can only help his cause and he looks to have very solid prospects. It is a surprise that he remains a double-figure price for the race.

Race replay: Leopardstown Christmas Chase, Leopardstown, December 2017.

Kevin Blake
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