Ante-Post Preview of the Gold Cup and Cheltenham Festival 2014 Tips – With the main contenders heading straight to the Festival and with the dust having settled after this season’s King George VI Chase and Lexus Chase its a good time to take stock and examine the ante-post Cheltenham Gold Cup market. With the recent withdrawal of last year’s runner-up; Sir Des Champs, two horses have moved into clear favouritism. Have the bookmakers got it right and is it a two horse race?
The current market leader is the reigning Gold Cup champion, Bobs Worth (9/4 BetVictor). After disappointing in the Betfair Chase he silenced his doubters by staying on powerfully in the Lexus Chase in Ireland to win well. Characteristically he came off the bridle early on and had to be encouraged along, yet he found plenty when asked and used all his talent to reel in the leaders and move clear. His formidable record at Cheltenham, coupled with his stamina reserves and ability to battle, makes him the ideal candidate to regain his title in March. His performance was mightily impressive last year when you consider that he came off the bridle on the home turn and looked for all the world to have lost his chance of victory. He duly battled on and the rest is history. This style of running isn’t particularly appealing as I'm sure Bobs Worth backers would agree but it seems that he is yet to face opposition with the quality to be able to hold his withering runs at bay. Until he do so then there is an inevitability that he will continue to regain the upper hand and pick them off up the Cheltenham hill.
One horse potentially capable of pushing Bobs Worth to his limits could be this year’s King George VI winner, SILVINIACO CONTI (7/2 Coral). He to performed below par in the Betfair Chase only to then improve for the run and win at Kempton with relative ease. That day, he managed to live with the strong gallop laid down by Cue Card and when that rival began to struggle coming through the home straight, Silviniaco Conti’s stamina reserves and accurate jumping enabled him to reel in the leader and move clear at the line. He is a likeable type who travels strongly throughout his races and always seems to find more for pressure. He was unfortunate to come down three out in last year’s Gold Cup, when again travelling strongly. Whether he would have won or not is debatable but one thing for sure is that, had he continued, he would have been travelling far better than Bobs Worth was turning in for home. This horses’ position as second favourite is clearly justified with numerous good efforts and I expect him to put in another bold show in this year’s Gold Cup.
Beyond the main two in the betting we find a collection of horses who have shown brilliance in the past but have far more questions to answer than the aforementioned pair. Starting with the winner of the Betfair Chase, Cue Card (8/1 Betfred); this front-running horse is suited when given the opportunity to control a big field race from the front and rely on his sound jumping and strong galloping pace to put his rivals under pressure and pick them off one by one. A tactic that has worked well so far, in particular in the Betfair Chase, he found one too good at Kempton in the form of Silviniaco Conti. His ability to see out the Gold Cup trip has always been in doubt and he seemed to empty coming into the last few furlongs on Boxing Day. Kempton is a flat track which places an emphasis on speed whereas Cheltenham is an undulating track where the emphasis is very much on stamina. The way Cue Card finished off his race in the King George isn’t particularly confidence inspiring as the Cheltenham hill is sure to take its toll and I could quite easily see this horse emptying once again in the final few furlongs. He’s not my idea of a good bet for the Gold Cup and I believe he should instead look to defend his Ryanair crown, a contest I’m sure he would win with relative ease.
The David Pipe trained Dynaste (25/1 Coral) is an interesting contender at a big price. This horse was an impressive winner of the Feltham Novice Chase at Kempton last season before disappointing slightly in the JLT Novices Chase at the Festival. He recovered well from that defeat and won the Mildmay Novices Chase at Aintree with great ease. This horse was an exciting prospect for this season with his trainer very optimistic about his chances of mixing it with the main Gold Cup contenders. Certainly that confidence was justified after his performance in the Betfair Chase where he finished a close second to Cue Card without the benefit of run under his belt. He was sent off joint favourite for the King George but could never get in to contention and disappointed. He finished some 50 lengths behind the winner and didn’t really show a lot that day to be seriously considered as a Gold Cup favourite. That run was too bad to be true and since then the horse has been under veterinary supervision in order to discover the cause of his tame effort. With an entry in both the Ryanair and the Gold Cup, if this horse returns in full health and good form he could play a major role in either race. He undoubtedly has good natural jumping ability and at a big price could be a strong each-way bet.
Another who disappointed in the King George was Al Ferof (12/1 Betfred). This horse won the Paddy Power Gold Cup impressively in 2012 and reappeared this season, after a setback, to win over 2m3f at Ascot with his head in his chest (the race ended up as a match after the withdrawal of Captain Chris). That run certainly was the ideal preparation for his first attempt over 3m, a trip his trainer was confident he would get beforehand. Unsuited by the truly soft ground at Kempton on Boxing Day he battled his way into third but never looked likely to trouble the leaders. He could well go on to improve given another attempt over 3m but Cheltenham might not be the place to do so. Horses who have question marks over their stamina represent unattractive propositions at Cheltenham and this horse falls into that category. Paul Nicholls was leaning towards the Ryanair after the King George and I would have to agree with him. If Cue Card goes for the Gold Cup, then Al Ferof would have a strong chance in the Ryanair with strong course and distance form already in the book.
With the withdrawal of Sir Des Champs the main Irish challenge looks to come from another Gigginstown House Stud runner, First Lieutenant (12/1 BetVictor). This horse contested the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown and finished an admirable second, just failing to beat a charging Bobs Worth. First Lieutenant has solid form throughout his book with a victory in the Betfred Bowl bookended by a 9 length loss to Cue Card in the Ryanair and a 1 length loss to Sir Des Champs in the Punchestown Gold Cup. He is a consistent if not spectacular horse who, nonetheless, deserves his place in the Gold Cup field. Undoubtedly he will receive plenty of Irish support yet I question whether or not he is quite good enough to win in what promises to be a top quality renewal of the race.
With things as they stand, I do believe the bookmakers have got it right and this race looks to be between the top two in the market. It is a real shame that Sir Des Champs isn’t able to contest the race, as Im sure that last year’s runner-up would have found himself in the mix at the line once again. It seems that both Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti bring an element of class to the race that the other runners lack. Undoubtedly their rivals will do their best to provide a stern challenge but in all honesty I would be very surprised if either of the top two in the market failed to fire. In terms of selecting a winner, although I hugely respect both his Cheltenham record and his battling qualities, Bobs Worth’s style of racing makes me very uneasy and doesn't appeal as a pre-race betting proposition. If I were going to back him then it would only be in-running as, of the main contenders, he likely to be the first off the bridle and the first to be pushed along. With that in mind I will continue to support SILVINIACO CONTI. I’m of the firm belief that if his horse has mentally recovered from his fall in last year’s contest then he should have enough ability and class to finally crack the reigning Gold Cup hero.
Ante-Post Gold Cup 2014 Selection –
SILVINIACO CONTI (WIN) (7/2 Coral)
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