Saturday, 5 March 2016

Thirty years of hurt

Here’s a repost of a piece I wrote for the Gold Cup Blog website...


I have never backed the winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Ever. The most prestigious race in the jumps calendar. And I am potless. It is a shocking admission.

The first Gold Cup bet I really remember, as a callow youth cutting my teeth in smoky northern betting shops, was a punt on Wayward Lad in Dawn Run’s astonishing 1986 victory. Everyone remembers ‘the mare getting up’, as Sir Peter O’Sullevan so memorably called. All that I remember though, is Wayward Lad patently not getting up – the hill, that is. A little form study would have revealed the same thing happening in 1983, during Michael Dickinson’s staggering 1-2-3-4-5. Dickinson was a legend in the north. Wayward Lad was one of his stable stars, winning the King George thrice. However, the Gold Cup was a stamina test too far.

By the time I began attending the Festival in 2000, sampling that unique, heady atmosphere in person, I was a bit better prepped. Like many that season, I had been blown away by the scintillating, front-running novice, Gloria Victis who had won three of four races in his debut season in Britain. The manner of his bold jumping Racing Post Chase victory off top weight meant connections were unable to resist a shot at Gold Cup only 18 days later. I backed him and watched open mouthed as the horse threw himself at the fences, hitting some, jinking right at others but regaining the lead tenaciously on each occasion. He was in front again, being rousted along by Tony McCoy, when he came down at the 2nd last.

His leg was broken and this brave horse was put down. I didn’t know this until on the packed train home after racing. A mate and I had been licking our lips at the prospect of what was to come. The news was a shock. A low point in my personal history with the Gold Cup.

Rather more special was being in the cauldron to witness each of Best Mate’s three wins. I missed the value in that impressive first year. He returned at 7/1. For the repeats in 03 and 04, I was already locked into a value straight-jacket, a mantra I misrepresented that had me misguidedly opposing favourites at all costs. I wrote of his win later:

“An outpouring of emotion was wrung from the stands on that dull Thursday afternoon. Adulation and respect gushed down the steps like a river in full spate. The dam of affection had burst and it felt like all of Prestbury Park was awash with sentiment. Everyone’s Best Mate.”

But not mine. I had backed Sir Rembrandt at 33/1. During the race I had become distracted by a tussle between Harbour Pilot and Best Mate. I suddenly realised that Sir Rembrandt was flying up the nearside. Wedged by the rail I was struggling for a good view. The big screen broadcast was a mess: the director was showing a full-frame, flared-nostril close-up of Best Mate and Harbour Pilot slugging out the finish and ignoring the fast finishing Alner gelding on the other side of the track.

Maybe it was the collective gasp of the crowd that alerted the TV guys. The camera panned back to relay the last few strides of genuine knee-trembler. A fantastic finish saw Sir Rembrandt split Best Mate and Harbour Pilot. The closest I had come to a win since Wayward Lad.

Others got away too. Denman. I loved Denman. I loved his dominating gallop, I loved his fearless fencing. Heck, I even loved his alternating Barber/Findlay silks. So why did I not back him the year he beat Kauto Star in that epic, electric Gold Cup of 2008? I don’t know. My records show that I backed Halcon Genelardais at 16/1 in the pursuit of dogmatically interpreted value. I remember very little about that bet. The Tank won at 9/4, a plenty big enough price in hindsight. I cheered him all the way home. 

I then backed him on both occasions he was runner-up: to The Star a year later and then to Imperial Commander. Given my mindset in those days, I never touched Kauto Star at the short SPs he inevitably attracted. What a horse though. Even from the short distance of half-a-decade ago, those years feel like a golden era.

More recently, I have flirted with another Nicholls horse. In 2013, screaming at the telly in the pub (having returned from Prestbury Park earlier in the week) I was convinced Silviniaco Conti was winning Bob’s Worth’s Gold Cup when coming down at the 4th last. Backing him again in 2014, I realised the truth. Just like Wayward Lad all those years ago, Conti was defeated by the hill.

Last year, Road To Riches gave me a good shout. No complaints. Coneygree was a joy to watch.

So where does the Mug Punting pin fall this year? I love the ebb and flow of ante-post betting. Like a kid in a sweet shop, I can’t keep my sticky fingers off all those inviting goodies.

I think I’ve managed to refine my inflexible interpretations about value. I made up my mind about the Cheltenham Gold Cup 6 weeks ago. Before the Kinlock Brae Chase at Thurles, Don Cossack was backed lumpily at 5/1. I had concluded that his ability to maintain a good gallop off the pace and kick on in the closing stages in top company were the sort of attributes I was looking for. Over a trip where his stamina would come into play, he was the boy for me. The key pieces of form that franked that view were the Punchestown Gold Cup where he won well last April and the King George where he fell at the last but looked like getting up.

His run in that Kinlock Brae raised as many questions as it answered. In the aftermath, a lot was said about the lazy way he ran and the possibility of head gear. Whilst all that is a worry, trainer Gordon Elliot’s view that better ground will make all the difference is valid. I have to keep the faith now.

Don Poli is the rival I’m most concerned about. That was the case even before Djakadam’s fall in February. Don Poli is a grinder with stamina to burn. Just the type for that hill. I’m learning. Djakadam now goes into the race with the following stat hanging about his battered frame: Of the 103 horses since 2006 that have come into the Cheltenham Festival off the back of a last-time-out fall, only one has won. I don’t tend to hold such stats in very high regard, but that one is a cracker.

So for me it falls to Don Cossack to break the hoodoo and end 30 years of shame. Bring it on.

Just the Supreme to crack now. But that’s a whole other blog…

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