In Jamie Lynch's preview of the final day of Cheltenham, the focus is on focus, and whether a leading Gold Cup contender can take inspiration and motivation from a sporting Knight of the Realm.
"It's almost recognition of his lassitude that connections are now reaching for the sideburns, or cheekpieces as they are, equipment designed to (re)stimulate and (re)focus the horse."
'I had no motivation to do anything.' It's not uncommon for athletes to lose their mojo, but it is for them to recapture and multiply it in the way Sir Bradley Wiggins has. It was after the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where he won a gold, silver and bronze, that his get up and go got up and went, by his own admission: 'I had lost a big thing in my life. Something that had driven me for so long was gone...I'd lived so religiously in the run-up to Athens.'
Lulls are both relative and indefinite, but Wiggins' dip was low and long, until a new-found focus put him on a road to stardom for which the stop-offs included Beijing for more golds in 2008, the Champs-Elysees, London 2012 and, ultimately, Buckingham Palace. Something propelled him. Perhaps it was those sideburns.
Sideburns of a slightly different kind are the pinned-on hopes of propulsion for Long Run in the Gold Cup. Any parallels go only so far, of course, because Long Run is more like Wiggins' bike in the sense that he feels no pressure nor expectation, while Sam Waley-Cohen, by popular consent, isn't in the same league as Wiggins as a rider. No animal behaviourist has proved or disproved that horses have emotions, but they do, like humans, have identifiable and changeable characteristics, including motivation, and, to a lesser extent, albeit for some time now, Long Run has seemed to be suffering the same malaise Wiggins did of an extinguished fire in the belly.
It's almost recognition of his lassitude that connections are now reaching for the sideburns, or cheekpieces as they are, equipment designed to (re)stimulate and (re)focus the horse. Whether they'll work is the £313,225 question, but first-time headgear did the trick of reinvigorating See More Business in the 1999 Gold Cup. What are the chances of cheekpieces sparking Long Run into 'doing a Wiggins' and taking off again?
This is the point at which, as the final piece of the puzzle, having crunched the numbers, I tell you that, statistically speaking, cheekpieces impact positively upon performance. Only they don't, no more than by chance, anyway. In fact, analysing all 983 cases in Britain and Ireland of jumpers wearing first-time cheekpieces in 2012, wins (77) were fewer than random probability and, measuring by Timeform ratings where available, the sideburned horses collectively performed slightly below expectation (by 3.7 lb), even allowing for them starting at longer-than-average prices.
However, in a lot of those cases, also in part explaining the higher SP anomaly, the horses were put in cheekpieces as a last ability-finding resort, looking for something uncertain to be there, and often not there, but we know it's there with Long Run. That's exactly why, for him more than many, this experiment might just work: the cheekpieces are digging for gold where gold has been won before.
Even in winning at Kempton in December, on heavy ground, Long Run looked slow, but there's a faster horse in there somewhere, the one who, as a zealous six-year-old, had the King George and Gold Cup in the bag a long way out, the latter in the course record time.
Think of the Long Run/cheekpieces relationship the other way round, at the needs of cheekpieces rather than Long Run. For cheekpieces to best do their duty of giving a horse that missing edge, they need something to tap into, either a higher past rating or, better still, some lost speed, and in that respect Long Run is the perfect prototype.
Of the main rivals, Sir des Champs is himself a candidate for headgear one day, though for now he has a proven motivational tool to help, namely Cheltenham, having won at the previous two Festivals, while neither Bobs Worth nor Silviniaco Conti are in need of any trigger, too young and too hungry for all that, though in form terms both still have to look up to see where Long Run used to be.
Used to be is the operative phrase, and the cheekpieces may prove academic if, as is totally reasonable, such is nature's way, age has caught up and Long Run has slowed down, but there's a chance - just a chance - that he's been pulling the wool over our eyes, to be exposed by the wool on the sides of his face.
The races subsequent to the Gold Cup inevitably have an air of 'after the Lord Mayor's show' about them, though sometimes it can be worth waiting around, like after the show at which Coventry's former Lord Mayor got drunk and, while wearing the ceremonial gold chains, told various women what he'd enjoy doing to them...
REMATCH OF THE DAY
It's billed as the amateurs' Gold Cup, but there was nothing amateurish about Colm Sweeney and Jack Barber in the Foxhunter, who produced rides that Walsh and Geraghty would be proud. There was only a length between Salsify and Chapoturgeon at the line, and the rematch is on, the sequel as much about the jockeys again, as the horses are exactly the same this year as last judged on their recent wins.
Are there any lessons to be learned from twelve months ago? Yes, because I backed Chapoturgeon, and I know for a fact that if he couldn't beat Salisify then under the ballsiest of ballsy rides by Barber, he won't do now. Sweeney God to beat the demon Barber.
FRIDAY'S C.H.I.L.D. KEEPS COMING AND WINNING
Drumshambo 2, Anay Turge 1, Bendant 1, Rouge Et Blanc 2, Jumps Road 2, The Chazer 1, Kapga de Cerisy 2, Eastlake 1. Those are the names and number of subsequent wins of the horses who Rody has faced in just three starts this season. Strong form to say the least, suggesting that Nicky Henderson won't have it all his own way in the Grand Annual.
Not a reference to the Triumph (won by Rolling Star), but an homage to and attempted impression of Conor Murphy, the punters' hero. So here goes with my accumulated Festival Five who'll alow me to likewise relocate to America and set up as a trainer:
My Tent Or Yours, Supreme
The New One, Neptune
Bordoni, Fred Winter
Oscar Whisky, World Hurdle
Get Timeform data for Cheltenham for just £2.50 a day with Timeform Race Passes. It's like a Form Book, Black Book & Race Card all in one! Find Out More!