It's all very different from 10 months ago. Following the 2013 Gold Cup, it was tempting to herald a new era of staying chasers- perhaps silver to Kauto Star and Denman's golden one- with Bobs Worth, Sir des Champs, Long Run and other, smaller players set to compete for top honours time and again over the coming seasons.
As 2014 starts we find ourselves in quite different times. Long Run seems long gone, Sir des Champs has suffered a non-starter of a season and Bobs Worth's mask of unerring reliability has slipped, if only just a little.
There are also Gold Cup challenges which have come and gone in the space of just the last few weeks. Cue Card emerged as a genuine contender when storming home in the Betfair Chase before faltering close home in the King George. Irrespective of the trigger for that collapse, it doesn't bode well for the Gold Cup which famously takes so much more getting than the King George- just ask One Man or Florida Pearl. As it stands with doubts over Sprinter Sacre's wellbeing, Cue Card's connections would probably be better advised to go the One Man route and tackle the Champion Chase.
Al Ferof, like One Man owned by John Hales, also has his participation in doubt after a somewhat disappointing showing at Kempton. Al Ferof most likely wasn't beaten by the trip, though it was his first serious test following an extended lay-off through injury so much will rest on his next start, mooted to be the Denman Chase at Newbury.
Silviniaco Conti, the tragic hero of last year's Gold Cup, gained partial compensation when benefiting from Cue Card's Kempton stutter and is now second favourite (behind Bobs Worth) for full redemption. We can now be confident that he'll stay, a view that wasn't held universally when he came down three out last March, though did the King George tell us all that much more?
Visual impressions suggest that, all other things being equal, Silviniaco Conti is still inferior to Cue Card: greater stamina and a guileful ride from Noel Fehily were the difference on Boxing Day. Before the King George, with his stamina not generally perceived to be a problem and Bobs Worth's wellbeing still in the balance, Cue Card could be backed at not much below 9.08/1, so why should Silviniaco Conti be 4.77/2 now?
This is all a roundabout way of saying that Bobs Worth still provides the best option among the market leaders. The bare form of his recent Lexus Chase win was far removed from what will be required to win the Gold Cup, but that race was an away fixture for the champion in every sense of the word: a steadily-run three miles at a track with a relatively short straight for him to unwind on.
Bobs Worth's Leopardstown win, no matter how workmanlike and irrespective of what finished uncomfortably close up, can be taken as a fairly positive indication that he is as strong as last year. Should that hold true, anything above 3.02/1 for the Gold Cup is fair.
Tipping the favourite is easy. The point made right at the top of the article still stands, though: the top bracket isn't as impermeable as it once looked. We can therefore look a bit further down the betting for a couple of long-priced types that may yet have a say.
Bare form is a less-than-pressing consideration here too, as it really ought to be when looking beyond the obvious. For example, those skimming results would see Boston Bob as a Festival flop, being a beaten favourite in 2012 and a faller in last year's RSA; of course, there's more to it than that. Boston Bob was the likeliest winner when he came down at the last in the RSA and had beaten eventual victor Lord Windermere under less suitable conditions the time before.
Talking of unsuitable conditions, Boston Bob made his reappearance over Christmas, in a hurdle race over two and a half miles. He dotted up, admittedly against inferior opposition but showing more than enough zest to suggest reported problems earlier in the campaign won't have a lasting effect. Untried over the Gold Cup trip but bound to thrive over it, Boston Bob can be expected to show high-class form given the chance.
We should deal with the Thursday question before we finish with Boston Bob. It has been reported that he would be aimed at the World Hurdle. However, with Sir des Champs now out there is no obvious Gold Cup challenge from the Willie Mullins yard, while indications at the time of writing nominate Annie Power's most likely target as the World Hurdle. It's not at all difficult to see thoughts graduating towards a Gold Cup tilt for Boston Bob.
'Which Festival race?' is less of a concern with Katenko. He was given a seemingly ambitious entry in last year's Gold Cup before colic ended his season. On two ostensibly disappointing starts this winter he has gone some of the way to justifying the faith. First up in the Hennessy off a BHA mark of 157 (Bobs Worth won the 2012 renewal rated 160, incidentally), Katenko tanked through the race until coming down at the fourteenth and he still seemed in need of the run when finishing a tired fourth at Aintree a week later. The feeling is that Katenko is yet to reveal the full extent of his ability. Depending on where and when he turns up next, he's capable of the sort of trial that would see current odds of 80.079/1 dry up very quickly.
We should have known last March not to get carried away with the new breed of staying chasers- the course of the Gold Cup rarely does run smooth. Only greats like Best Mate and Kauto Star hang around and Bobs Worth has all the attributes to one day be mentioned in the same breath. However very few can continually produce their best: see the repeated attempts to get a satisfactory match-up between Kauto Star and Denman, two of the most reliable stayers of their day. For that reason, we're advising you add a bit of kick to your ante-post portfolio by including Boston Bob and Katenko, both good examples of the sort of horses that can take an unexpectedly prominent role in the climax of the Festival's feature race.
2pts win Bobs Worth @ 3.259/4 in the Cheltenham Gold Cup
1pt win Boston Bob @ 30.029/1 & Katenko @ 80.079/1 in the Cheltenham Gold Cup
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