Is the Cheltenham Gold Cup headed west (again)?
LetÔÇÖs face it: the start of a new year is rarely the time to make pronouncements on potential Gold Cup winners, nor were there any surprises when the entries were announced last week. ItÔÇÖs not that itÔÇÖs impossible to predict ÔÇô Minella Indo had his backers this time last year ÔÇô itÔÇÖs more the case that the markers, for various reasons, arenÔÇÖt what they used to be. Consider the King George VI Chase, for instance, which often set the stage for the winner to become ante-post Gold Cup favourite. ThatÔÇÖs rarely the case anymore. Tornado Flyer, the shock 2021 King George winner, is the 5th-favourite at the time of writing, and some pundits think thatÔÇÖs being generous.
But while making a case for the Gold Cup winner in January is difficult, one thing is clear: the dominance of Irish-trained horses. As 2022 dawned, the Cheltenham odds from 888 Sport showed that the five market leaders ante-post for the Gold Cup are all Irish-trained. They are, in order: A Plus Tard, 100/30 (Henry de Bromhead), Galvin, 5/1 (Gordon Elliott), Minella Indo, 17/2 (de Bromhead), Al Boum Photo, 10/1 (Willie Mullins), and Tornado Flyer, 12/1 (Mullins).
British trainers’ chances look slim
While British trainers have chances, including entries for Dan SkeltonÔÇÖs Protektorat (14/1) and Nicky HendersonÔÇÖs Chantry House (22/1) and Champ (16/1) – although the latter looks more likely for the StayersÔÇÖ Hurdle – itÔÇÖs difficult to overlook the Irish runners once again. Five of the last six Gold Cups have gone to the Irish, with the only blip being Native River in 2018. Lest we forget, it was an Irish 1-2-3 in the 2021 Gold Cup, with A Plus Tard and Al Boum Photo following Minella Indo home. The latter, of course, is gunning for a Gold Cup hat-trick after winning the blue riband event in 2019 and 2020.
Of course, the Irish dominance in the Gold Cup in recent years reflects the broader picture of the Festival. Last year was the pinnacle, with 23 Irish-trained winners setting an unwanted record this side of the Irish Sea. British trainers will have winced at that 23-5 trouncing, and there were even calls for an overhaul of the British racing season to stop Irish raiders plundering the spoils. But rather like calls for change in red ball cricket, this is a trend that won’t be turned around in short order.
Some reasons for the British to be optimistic
But there are reasons to think that it might not be as one-sided this time around, even if the Irish still take the majority of the wins. Nicky Henderson has some big players again tipped for Festival success, including Jonbon in the Supreme NovicesÔÇÖ Hurdle and the brilliant Shishkin in the Champion Chase. Dan SkeltonÔÇÖs yard should also be of interest, with Shan Blue looking like a worthy ante-post favourite in the Ultima Handicap Chase. While Paul NichollsÔÇÖ days of dominating the Festival look over for the time being, his yard should never be ruled out of landing a winner or two.
And yet, when looking at the Gold Cup, it seems like the British are still a long way off from the days when Paul Nicholls’ Kauto Star and Denman were able to trade wins, and Henderson was able to bring out Long Run and BobÔÇÖs Worth in the same race. There might be a British-trained winner, but the Irish look firmly in control of the Gold Cup once again. And, unfortunately for British trainers, it seems that also the case broadly across the Festival.