The 2021 Cheltenham Gold Cup is scheduled for Friday the 19th of March, and will be run over a trip of three miles, two furlongs and seventy yards. Having won the race in 2019 and 2020, the Willie Mullins trained Al Boum Photo is attempting to join Golden Miller, Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate as horses to have won the race three times in a row.

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Al Boum Photo had his prep for the 2019 Gold Cup with an easy win at Tramore, before beating Anibale Fly by two and a half lengths at Cheltenham. It was a well run race, and apart from getting hampered by a faller on the first circuit he got a smooth passage through the race, before hitting the front at the second last. It was a solid if not spectacular performance, and the proximity of the runner up does make you think it wasn’t vintage stuff. Anibale Fly had been third in the previous years Gold Cup, but he was beaten over eight lengths that day, and never threatened to get involved either, so while he goes well at the track, beating him a few lengths was nothing special in Gold Cup winning terms. Indeed Al Boum Photo likely wasn’t even the best staying chaser in his yard that year, with that accolade going to Kemboy who beat him at Punchestown.

Last season Al Boum Photo again won at Tramore, beating Acapella Bourgeois by six lengths, before following up in the Gold Cup, this time by just a neck from Santini. Everything about the form screams good but not great though. There were six horses within seven and a half lengths for a start, with Real Steel coming sixth having failed to stay, although the steady pace would have suited him, it was a concern that a horse that looks well short of the top level could saunter into contention on the home bend.

Another concern would be the winner only ran twenty lengths quicker than the Foxhunter winner over the same trip in the next race, when  double that would be expected given the abilities on show. The lack of pace in the Gold Cup was partly to blame, and both winners reached six out in around the same time, but you would still expect the Gold Cup winner to put more than twenty lengths between them from six out, and indeed Al Boum Photo was actually two lengths slower from two out. All told there is no way you could interpret the bare form as anything other than below average for a Gold Cup winner. One positive is Al Boum Photo showed he could win in a well run race in 2019 but was versatile enough to win off a steady early pace last year.

Al Boum Photo warmed up for this years Gold Cup by beating Acapella Bourgeois by nineteen lengths last time, an increase of thirteen lengths that he beat the same horse the previous year. I remember a tweet on my timeline after the race when a journalist said they weren’t that impressed with the win, only to get loads of abuse from the ‘he won nineteen lengths, what do you want him to do’ brigade. The thing is I can see the initial point. He was up against a vastly inferior horse, and unlike the previous two years when the pace was steady, thus compressing the margins, this time the race was run at a really fast pace, and the second was legless from the second last, but not before he got the favourite at it.  To only use the winning margin to judge the merit of a performance, as many seem to have done, is so basic that if that’s the extent of your analysis you really shouldn’t be abusing anyone else over their form analysis skills. It could be the track over that trip is just a bit on the sharp side, hence Al Boum Photo being niggled from over half a mile out that day, but still, against a rival that was stopping in front, it was a little concerning that he wasn’t cantering all over him coming to two out.

A Plus Tard was an impressive winner of a handicap at Cheltenham in 2019, before looking to find the step up in trip to three miles at Punchestown a bit too much for him, although it was also a big step up in grade. Last season he managed to win a grade one over two miles and one at Leopardstown, although Chacun Pour Soi wasn’t at his best that day, and looked sure to be better again over the Ryanair trip of just shy of two miles and five at Cheltenham.

A two lengths third to Min at Cheltenham was respectable, but with Saint Calvados who was beaten off 157 in a handicap on his previous start filling the runner up berth, it’s hard to think Min was at his very best on the day. A Plus Tard didn’t have any excuses on the day either. After a comeback second at Navan A Plus Tard stepped back up to three miles in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas.

It looked a very strong race on paper, but in practice wasn’t quite as strong with the favourite Minello Indo and Delta Work failing to complete. A Plus Tard was given a patient ride held up off the even pace set by Kemboy, who was then taken on by his stablemate Melon over a mile out, with the pair pressing on for home. A Plus Tard jumped the second last eight lengths down, and still didn’t look like winning half way up the run in, but the front pair hit a wall and he got up close home. On one hand the fact he finished strongest in a well run race, suggests he might stay the Gold Cup trip, but on the other you would expect the horse that was more optimally paced to come home stronger than a pair that got at it too far out, so he was likely flattered on the day.

Champ was a very good novice hurdler before switching his attentions to chasing last season, and apart from a fall when he had the race in safe keeping at Cheltenham in January he would have gone four for four in his novice season. His one length win over Minella Indo with Allaho the same distance back in third, in the RSA takes a bit of work to figure out. He had been ridden more patiently than that pair who set an even pace, and Champ looked like being involved when he made progress to get within a few lengths of them on the run to the last bend.

The front two kicked on coming into the bend though and Champ seemingly couldn’t go with them, and jumped the last seven lengths down, only to fly home and get up late for what looked an unlikely win. The initial impression was the second and third fell in a hole from the last having gone a good pace, but some sectional time comparisons with the Queen Mother ran over two miles an hour later, suggest it was more a case of Champ coming home quickly than the first two stopping. From three out to two out Champ was around a length slower than Politologue, and he was about two and a half lengths slower on the short run from the second last to the last, yet he was fourteen lengths quicker than Politologue from the last to the line, so while the Queen Mother was run at a furious gallop, those sectionals certainly don’t suggest it was a case of the front two stopping.

The fact Champ made no ground on the fourth horse home from the last bend to the last, and then made around twenty lengths on him on the run in would further back up that it was Champ finding another gear on the run in. Horses rarely quicken a few furlongs after being asked for their full effort, and it’s unlikely Champ did, more so he kept going much better than you would expect, as horses normally start slowing down around a furlong after being asked for full effort. He did also stumble slightly on landing after the second last, and it maybe took him until landing over the last to get back up to speed. All in all it suggested the greater stamina test the Gold Cup normally provides should be right up his street although his jumping, while fine, was a little slow at times.

Champ has only run once since, when dropped to two miles at Newbury last weekend. He made the running and while  he didn’t set a strong pace, it was still encouraging to see him jump so well against decent two mile chasers, and he definitely looked slicker over his fences than he had in the RSA. In the end getting in close to the last cost him, as he lost momentum, but was coming back at the winner at the line. It was a really good comeback run, as he got to jump at speed without having a hard race, and it also suggested he’s improved since last year. I don’t know whether his improved jumping was related or not, but the more forcing ride seemed to suit him.

Royal Pagaille started at 9/2 off a mark of 140 for his penultimate start at Kempton over Christmas, and now after an easy win that day, and following up in a weak race at Haydock off 156 on heavy ground, we are expected to believe he’s a real Gold Cup contender? The most overrated performances in history have mostly come in handicaps, when horses find it much easier to defeat inferior rivals giving them weight due to the huge flaws in the handicap system. Another type of race that leads to people getting carried away is attritional races on heavy ground, I remember one lad was proclaiming Bristol De Mai as the next Arkle after one Betfair Chase win in such conditions. In short such conditions lead to over reactions, and while that Haydock race wasn’t overly strongly run, and Royal Pagaille is clearly much improved,  the Gold Cup is still about ten classes removed from beating the 134 rated eleven year old Potters Legend, and I’d be wanting much bigger than 10/1 before I’d consider backing him.

Santini has always looked like a bit of a boat, he benefitted from Bristol De Mai kicking for home too soon at Cheltenham in his warm up for last years Gold Cup, looking once again looked like the bigger the stamina test the better he’d be. With that in mind he ran a cracker in the Gold Cup, as it wasn’t truly run, and he was a bit outpaced off the last bend, before finishing very strongly from the last. I made a comment on twitter at the time that all other things being equal he would surely have won had they gone an even pace, and I remember a few people claiming he would have been taken out of his comfort zone if that had gone faster.

Of course it’s possible a horse can go too quick for his own good, but to claim this was a likely scenario in this case is too ignore a basic understanding of how different horses distribute and optimally use their available energy. A horse like Santini is capable of maintaining a decent gallop for much longer than most horses, but what he has always got caught out on is a sharp increase in pace. If you neutralized the effect of gradient an even paced Gold Cup would have been about 15.5 seconds for each furlong. Given the race was slowly run early before picking it up around six out, that meant they actually ran a good few furlongs much slower than that 15.5, and then some much quicker. It’s the much quicker ones that bring Santini out of his comfort zone and resulted in him being left behind off the final bend, before he kept going when the others were stopping from the last. If they had gone an even pace the whole way he clearly isn’t being taken out of his comfort zone anywhere near as much as being asked to go much quicker from 6 out. I’ve never in my life seen a horse with Santini’s characteristics not be better with an even pace than a slow/quick one. Another point is he is also lazy so even if they went off a much too quick, he would be the one to benefit the most as he likely wouldn’t allow himself to go too quick, and he’s pick up the pieces when they stopped.

All those theories are based on the horse Santini was last year, the problem is he’s looked a bit of a dog since then. At Aintree on his comeback he never really travelled but when the others stopped he looked set to pick up the pieces, only to hang fire when coming to challenge. You could excuse his fifth in the King George as that was a steadily run three miles, but he never went a yard in a well run race on heavy ground at Sandown last time won by Native River. Again I’m sure some will claim Native River brought him out of his comfort zone, but it looked far more like he just had no interest. It’s possible he doesn’t like heavy ground, as although he won a grade two as a novice hurdler on heavy, it was also heavy when he ran poorly at Aintree. Excuses are running thin but if he was to turn up in the same form as last year, with more of a pace on, which is likely, then he’d have a great chance.

Native River outstayed Might Bite on heavy ground to win the 2018 Gold Cup, and while that win left a mark on the runner up, Native River is made of stern stuff, and he ran a remarkable race to be fourth the following year. He was slowly into stride despite lining up at the front, and it meant he got a slap of the whip on the run to the first, and it took him until the eleventh fence to work his way to the front, looking to be racing at his max all the way. That he kept going like he did on ground that placed far less emphasis on stamina, was a testament to his character, and he left the impression that had the ground been like it was the previous year he would have won again.

He missed last years race through injury, but had looked as good as ever when winning at Newbury in February, and after a third at Aintree on his comeback he bounced back to form last time, when forcing a strong pace at Sandown, and keeping going much better than the rest. He looked close to his best that day, and while it seems a big ask to win the Gold Cup again at the age of eleven, and three years on since he won it before, if the ground comes up heavy he will make them all go a bit. It would be pointless even running him on good ground though, as like two years ago he probably wouldn’t be quick enough to even lead them at an even gallop.

Minella Indo won the Albert Bartlett as a novice hurdler in 2019, and was second to Champ in the RSA as a novice chaser last season, both times showing much improved form at Cheltenham. He won two graded races at the start of this season, before falling at Leopardstown over Christmas. He went off favourite again for the Irish Gold Cup last time, although it was a weaker field with just five runners, and he was a little disappointing in coming fourth, beaten just over six lengths by Kemboy. He looked a likely winner when moving up to challenge approaching the second last though, but a mistake at that fence seemed to knock the stuffing out of him. Given he’s peaked at for Cheltenham in each of the last two years, he could easily bounce back, and still has some untapped potential.

Frodon won the Ryanair in 2019, but has mostly come up short against the real top staying chasers, and I doubt he had to improve to win the King George last time, when a few of the main contenders failed to perform, and he got away with an easy time of it upfront. The race time was twenty lengths slower than the grade one novice over the same trip, highlighting the lack of pace more than anything, and beating the staying on Waiting Patiently by just two and a half lengths, after having the run of the race is a good way from Gold Cup winning form, over a trip that will likely stretch him too. He makes no appeal at 14/1.

Kemboy has bounced back to form recently, and he would very likely have beaten A Plus Tard on his penultimate start if Melon hadn’t forced him into going quicker than ideal from halfway down the back straight. He got an easier time of it in front last time when winning the Irish Gold Cup, and his overall form is as good as anything Al Boum Photo has done. The issue is that one has done it at Cheltenham, were as Kemboy unseated at the first in the Gold Cup in 2019, and after jumping off prominently last year he got shuffled back towards the rear, and while running okay he never looked like winning. His best form is when he’s dominated, and that could prove difficult if Native River turns up.

I fancied Lostintranslation for last years Gold Cup and he duly bounced back from a poor run in the King George. The thing is he jumped and travelled beautifully, while getting a perfect trip around the inside until pulled out to challenge in the straight. The fact he failed to win with such an ideal trip, and has run poorly in three runs since would make you wonder how he will win it this year. He stopped quickly at Newbury last time having travelled well until the straight, suggesting a breathing operation after the King George didn’t help.

It’s hard to fancy any of the others much with the trip a doubt for Allaho and he’d need to improve for it. In general these days the bookies are pretty tight with their ante post odds and you get much more competitive pricing on the day of the race. The ground and likely pace are also huge factors, Native River running last year for instance would have made a big difference to the pace and likely result. If I had to have a bet at the moment if would be Minella Indo at 16/1, and I wouldn’t put anyone off Champ at 13/2, but in truth I’d rather keep my powder dry until we know the final field and ground.

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