LEADING SECTIONAL RATINGS (as of 19/02/2020)
The Magners-sponsored Cheltenham Gold Cup will take place on Friday the 13th this year, which I am told is meant to be unlucky. Luck – good or bad – is difficult to legislate for, but preparation can minimise its effects: a variation on “the more I practice, the luckier I get”.
Too many people overlooked AL BOUM PHOTO in their preparation 12 months ago on account of where he won his warm-up race and some highly misleading timing measures associated with it.
He is back, 12 months on, with a similar preparation of an easy win at lowly Tramore, where distances are not necessarily what they seem, and probably has a similar chance. The crucial difference is that he is disputing favouritism this time at a fraction of the price he was in 2019.
Another crucial consideration is that Al Boum Photo followed his win at Cheltenham, which came at the chief expense of 166-rated Anibale Fly and 169-rated BRISTOL DE MAI, with a two-length defeat by KEMBOY at Punchestown.
That was backed up by a good time, and with good sectionals, and Kemboy – who had beaten CLAN DES OBEAUX by nine lengths at Aintree a month earlier – was probably some performer at the time.
Kemboy has looked rather less proficient in his two races since, starting favourite but finishing fourth then second at Leopardstown in the Savills Chase and the Irish Gold Cup, though not beaten far by DELTA WORK in quite bunched finishes (hence that horse’s rating of just 164) both times.
Kemboy jumped less than fluently both times, and the finishes of both races were quite slow, suiting a thorough stayer more than a strong-travelling individual like him. After some deliberation, I have reinstated Kemboy’s figure from last season but he would be on 163 on his two most recent starts.
Despite his big wins, I doubt Delta Work’s ability to triumph in a Cheltenham Gold Cup unless it turns into a similar slog and some of his chief rivals underperform. He does, however, have the measure of PRESENTING PERCY (161) on those two runs and beat a faltering MONALEE (163) by a head in the first of them.
Clan Des Obeaux may be better than he showed behind Kemboy at Aintree, but he is not as good as his runaway win in the King George VI Chase at Kempton last time suggests, either (his main rivals stopped alarmingly late on), and the extra 510 yards at Cheltenham seemed to find him out when he was fifth to Al Boum Photo 12 months ago.
Pulled up in the King George was LOSTINTRANSLATION, who ran Defi Du Seuil quite close in the JLT at Cheltenham in 2019 and beat Bristol De Mai on merit by one and a half lengths in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November, but who has had a far-from-ideal preparation.
NATIVE RIVER (168) won a heavy-ground Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2018, was fourth 12 months ago, and may have a chance if it turns into a thorough test of stamina. But I, for one, was not especially impressed by his workmanlike defeat of 151-rated Secret Investor at Newbury last time, even after allowing for the race having been steadily-run.
Another who could be of interest if the ground turns deep, though more probably for a place than for a win, is CHRIS’S DREAM, who got a 165 sectional rating for his win in the Red Mills Chase in the mud at Gowran Park. He shapes as if he will stay well but is not the most polished of jumpers.
Which leaves us with one major piece in the jigsaw: SANTINI.
The eight-year-old seems to divide opinion between those who think he is “hyped” and those who think he is not and that he may even be under-rated. As joint-favourite now for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, both camps have something to go at.
The former camp may point to his defeats as a novice at Kempton and Cheltenham, though he ran some blinding late sectionals in the former and should have won, while the RSA Chase at the latter (in which he was a close second to Topofthegame with Delta Work third) was falsely-run, as a 107.1% finishing speed shows, and did not play to his strengths.
Much more difficult to explain away is Santini’s win in the Cotswold Chase at this course in January, when he ran a solid overall time and some good late sectionals (101.9% finishing speed) to deny Bristol de Mai on one of the latter’s going days.
That came after a 76-day break following a far-from-impressive win at Sandown and a breathing operation. Bristol De Mai would have made it closer but for a mistake, and was conceding 2 lb, but Santini made a smaller mistake himself and yet rallied very much like the horse he had previously looked he might become.
There should be little doubt which of the pair will benefit more from the slightly longer trip in March, nor that the Santini we saw that day should be a formidable rival for the others providing his stamina strong suit is tested adequately.
Santini is top on my figures, but with several snapping at his heels. This year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup looked like it might be disappointing for a while, but it is right back to its rightful place as a race to savour.
VERDICT: SANTINI win only