2020 Cheltenham Festival Preview: Friday, Gold Cup Day
By Alastair Akers
Friday at the Cheltenham Festival is undoubtedly headlined by the Gold Cup, but this year there’s a mount-watering contest before the blue riband event: a top-class renewal of the Triumph Hurdle, with the suggestion that this year’s juveniles are an exceptional crop. There seems little doubt that several of these young horses will be fighting for prizes at plenty of future Cheltenham festivals, so it’s well worth paying close attention.
Unusually, the three market leaders are all English. Goshen and Allmankind have been truly breathtaking in racking up victories so far this term, but it’s their running styles which will render this contest unmissable: both will look to lead from the front and try to make all, with Allmankind particularly keen. Both have also posted freakish times on the clock doing so, meaning that the other jockeys won’t dare to let them get away, ensuring a frantic pace. The likely favourite, Solo, will look to storm past the leading pair up the hill; Paul Nicholls’ youngster was so good at Kempton last time out that he’s the highest rated, so he may well succeed. Whether he pips the front-runners to the post or not, the spectacle should provide the perfect way to kick off the final day of this year's meeting.
Even though excitement levels are high for the Triumph, they are still nowhere near those for this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, such is the depth of quality in the field taking on defending champion Al Boum Photo.
The challenge is spearheaded by three of last season’s star novices. Santini and Delta Work were second and third in the 2019 RSA Chase at Cheltenham, traditionally a good guide for the following year’s Gold Cup, and both have excelled this year in open company.
After a mediocre first run, Santini showed both his mettle and class by winning a brutal battle with top performer Bristol de Mai around Cheltenham in January. Nicky Henderson’s gelding displayed a tenacious attitude and an ability to stay up the famous hill which will stand him in good stead on the big day, especially if the ground comes up soft. Delta Work’s profile is very similar: following a poor opening effort at Down Royal, Gordon Elliott’s seven-year-old won well twice at Leopardstown, including an impressive staying victory in the Irish Gold Cup last time out. However, his jumping cost him in the RSA and Cheltenham’s fences may catch him out again this time.
The third leading young pretender is Lostintranslation, runner-up in last year's JLT Novices’ Chase. Like Santini, he marked himself out as a staying chaser of the highest quality by coming out on top of a bruising fight with Bristol de Mai. But Lostintranslation’s win came on Bristol de Mai’s home turf, Haydock Park, where the grey has previously seemed almost unbeatable, potentially making it stronger form than Santini’s. However, to back Colin Tizzard’s horse at Cheltenham, you have to overlook a very poor run at Kempton in the King George on Boxing Day. It’s not an ideal question mark ahead of the big race, but other horses (such as Imperial Commander) have overcome a poor King George run to triumph in March in recent times.
The other three contenders given live Gold Cup chances by the market are all undoubtedly talented – indeed they are all multiple Grade 1 winners – but they all also have points to prove this year.
Clan Des Obeaux arrives an impressive winner of the King George, the season’s second biggest staying chase after the Gold Cup, but that was also the case last year, and he could only finish a poor fifth at Cheltenham. There is a strong suspicion that he isn’t seen at his best on an undulating, left-handed track such as Prestbury Park having failed to win in five previous visits; if that view proves wrong, he would have a huge chance.
Kemboy won Grade 1s at Aintree and Punchestown last Spring, beating much of the Gold Cup field in the process, but he has been beaten favourite on both his starts this term. There are no excuses for those two reverses, notably at Leopardstown when beaten fair and square by Delta Work, and having fallen in the 2019 Gold Cup and finished unplaced at the 2018 Festival, it would be surprising if returning to Cheltenham brought out a sudden improvement to reverse the form.
It would be foolish to write off Presenting Percy – he has twice won at the Cheltenham Festival, bringing his best form to Prestbury Park – but, like Clan Des Obeaux and Kemboy, he has a serious statistic to overcome, with 80 of the last 82 horses returning to the Gold Cup after being beaten in a previous renewal being beaten once again. In other words, his best chance may have been and gone.
So, with the opposition considered, can Al Boum Photo defend his crown? The first factor against him is that winning two Gold Cups is extremely difficult: since the greatest of all time, Arkle, won his last in 1966, only L’Escargot, Kauto Star and Best Mate have triumphed more than once, and they are all regarded as truly great chasers. Further to that, there is a suspicion that the 2019 Gold Cup was not the strongest, with handicapper Anibale Fly the runner-up and many fancied runners failing to fire.
However, Al Boum Photo can’t be entirely ruled out. He had a relatively easy race last year, and is a lightly raced horse in general, with only 15 starts to his name; indeed, at eight years old, he may only now be peaking. There’s also one strong counter to the argument that last year’s contest was weak: a tuned-up and fresh Bristol de Mai tanked around before being effortlessly passed by the winner up the hill. Only two others in this year’s field have ever beaten the brilliant but idiosyncratic grey when he is fully firing: the aforementioned Lostintranslation and Santini.
The sad absence of injured Native River means there may be a lack of pace early on, which could make ground conditions critical. On good ground the race could turn into somewhat of a speed test on the final lap, and therefore a tentative vote is given to Lostintranslation, quick enough to go close in the JLT against the rapid Defi Du Seuil last year. However, if the ground is soft (or worse), then the out-and-out stayers Santini and Delta Work may come to the fore, with quick jumping less of a priority.
It’s an open, but high-class, Gold Cup – and who could want more than that?