The 2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup unfolded like a gripping drama and proved that you need no more than two major characters to have an epic, for all that the supporting cast added useful context.
Native River emerged victorious from a titanic battle with Might Bite, confirming impressions made on the clock on his reappearance at Newbury that he was better than ever in improving two places on his effort of 12 months before.
The extra distance in testing conditions possibly proved a bit much for Might Bite, but he may well have run his best ever race in defeat even so.
Not only the horses but both jockeys received much praise. That tends to be the case with winning riders, if not always with complete justification. But in this instance Richard Johnson seemed to execute beautifully on Native River, making use of the horse’s stamina and good jumping up front without running the tank dry for the closing stages.
Sectionals confirm that impression, and the best way to illustrate that is to compare the race not with the Foxhunter which followed it (and in which the winner Pacha du Polder was fully 16.0s slower) but with other truly-run Cheltenham Gold Cups.
This can be done by taking the winning sectionals of those races (which include Don Cossack's in 2016 and Sizing John’s in 2017) and adjusting them to the conditions that prevailed now.
Cumulative Times, Cheltenham 16/Mar/2018
|PAR TIME FOR GOLD CUP||Flight||NATIVE RIVER||Lengths|
You would struggle to find a better-judged ride than on Native River this year. Johnson kept just a little back for much of the race but had Native River no more than a few lengths behind par at any stage.
It meant his partner had answers when he was asked to put in a surge after three out, going ahead of par for the first time since the beginning of the race, and Might Bite finally cracked on the run-in.
Both horses were tired at the end – with Johnson picking up a hefty fine and ban for his use of the whip – but the run-in time of 19.9s for 243 uphill yards was by no means bad: both Balko des Flos (at shorter, in the Ryanair Chase the day before) and Pacha du Polder ran 20.3s.
Native River’s overall timefigure is likely to be either good or very good, in a Festival which served up quite a few quick times in the context of testing conditions. All in all, this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup was a highly satisfying result and spectacle, and there seems little doubt that the best horse won.
Time analysis involves interpretation, which is prone to error, but it is based on hard evidence, despite some baffling suggestions to the contrary.
I managed to misinterpret Samcro earlier in the week, but the obvious conclusion to take from that was that the juveniles who ran faster than he did overall and sectionally at Leopardstown in February were even better than it had seemed at the time.
Farclas and Mr Adjudicator proved the point in the opening Triumph Hurdle by finishing first and second at rewarding odds. Perhaps it is a good job that not everyone interprets evidence in the same way or sees the need for it at all!