It was my opinion the Betfair Chase form should be classified under ‘unreliable evidence’ and the King George rather confirmed my impression to be correct. If Bristol de Mai requires hock-deep ground to win Grade 1 races then he is very unlikely to win a Cheltenham Gold Cup. The winner on the other hand will need ground no worse than good to confirm King George form come March. Might Bite is top-class, of that there is no doubt, though I suspect that when shove-comes-to-push, when a race becomes a war of attrition, he may lack the required resources of grit and steel to prevail. Also, and I fully appreciate how impressive Might Bite was through the race and that he may have won with a bit in hand, the bare form does not entitle him to be Gold Cup favourite, even with Sizing John running such a stinker at Leopardstown.
Double Shuffle was a revelation and could just be an improving sort but on all previous form it is hard to imagine him taking a hand in the finish of a Gold Cup, even if the step up in trip brings about ever more improvement. He will probably have to run in the Gold Cup as his handicap mark will keep him out of the handicaps at Cheltenham.
Tea For Two is interesting, isn’t he? 3-miles seems to be his optimum trip, yet Lizzie Kelly let slip he might be aimed at the Grand National rather than the Gold Cup. He’s run two cracking races in succeeding King George’s and while he never looked like winning behind Thistlecrack, this time around the possibility was there to be grabbed right up until the final hundred yards. He needs to be respected and though he might be a good ride around Aintree if he was mine I would have another crack at the Gold Cup, if only for Lizzie to lay the ghost of last year’s fall. An aside to the main subject; it is a surprise that Lizzie does not get too many outside rides. Unlike Bryony Frost, the only female jockey who at the end of her career will not be able to claim ‘if only I had better support I could have achieved more’, Lizzie’s ability in the saddle is being sadly overlooked.
For me, and at no point last year did I think he would win the Gold Cup, the horse to come out of the King George with the greatest credit, and he is being as ignored after the race as he was before, is Thistlecrack. I rather suspect the Tizzards cocked-up Thistlecrack’s preparation before the Newbury hurdle and are currently playing catch-up. I would like to see him have two more runs before the Gold Cup to ensure he is peaked for the big occasion. Horses of the calibre of Thistlecrack can win minor races against inferior opposition when only half or three-quarters fit and I shouldn’t think he was fully fit last season until Boxing Day, which is why his King George win was so impressive.
The conundrum of the Gold Cup this year is Coneygree. If they fix his breathing and he returns to the form of his Gold Cup year he may run them all ragged. It is just so hard to imagine, though, isn’t it? I would like them to go for the Grand National with him. But that is even harder to imagine happening.
Handicappers rarely win Gold Cups and when there are genuinely classy chasers around I believe they can be safely ignored, which is why I cannot give much of a chance to Total Recall and Whisper. Indeed if the Gold Cup is to return to Ireland it will accompany a horse trained by Jessie Harrington, with Our Duke as live a hope as his higher rated stable-mate.
And of course we have all overlooked Native River, fourth last year and who will be a much fresher horse this time around and it will be interesting to see which horse Richard Johnson would ride if he had to choose between Coneygree and Native River, which I am sure will be the case if Nico de Boinville is claimed for Might Bite?
To my eyes, at this stage of the season, if I was to back any horse ante-price for the Gold Cup it would be Thistlecrack. He isn’t as ground dependent as either Might Bite or Bristol de Mai and unlike all other candidates, bar Sizing John, has winning top-class form as both a chaser and hurdler. I would even suggest backing Tea For Two for a place as the way he is usually ridden it is easy to imagine him picking up third or fourth prize-money if Coneygree or Bristol de Mai set an attritional pace few will be able to maintain.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.