It’s been a quiet time for this blog… racing hasn’t really got my blood boiling lately. That’s okay. Everyone needs a break at some point, and mine was in recent weeks, taking a step back from racing. It felt good. There are other things in life as well.
Rejuvenated, fresh and less depressed with the days starting to be longer and brighter (and seemingly a bit less rainy – it’s been some depressing months here in Ireland on that front I can assure you!) – it’s time to head right into it again. I can smell the summer and oh…. I can hear the quick horses thundering down the final furlong at the Curragh! Would you believe it, the start Irish flat season is roughly two weeks away?!
There is this small matter of the Cheltenham Festival before that though… so one step at a time please! I was there, two years ago. It was great (just look at the enormous crowd in the lead photo of this article which I took on opening Tuesday that year). This year it’s me in front of the TV. Still good, Cheltenham is the most spectacular week of horse racing… only rivalled by Royal Ascot in my humble opinion. But let’s not get into an argument here. Let’s be focused on what’s really important: the races, the horses, the betting….
Shout it loud, shout it proud: Don Poli wins the Gold Cup! Okay, that’s not news for most of us…. or is it? Well, there’re some prominent advocates for the seven year old gelding, screaming it from roof for weeks, that’s for sure. I’m simply jumping on the bandwagon.
Why? Let’s start with the trainer. Master Willie. Never won the Gold Cup, but this horse is prepared to change it. Lightly campaigned, Don Poli will arrive fresh, trained to his absolute best on the day. But that’s also the case with the other Mullins inmates in the line-up . What’s a difference: the “Polinator” has vital course form – it’s no secret: Cheltenham is one of those rare tracks – it makes or breaks you.
Don Poli won the last two seasons at the Festival, with the RSA Chase arguably his biggest triumph. The way he poured it on and stormed up the hill after clearing the last that day in March 2015 was nothing but impressive.
Some have knocked the horse for his seemingly laziness and potential lack of pace. Don Poli a slow horse? It may appear to be so visually but I would argue that he usually just does as much as is required, without being fancy – nothing more, nothing less. He gets the job done. That’s it. It not “sexy” but Sea The Stars never won by a wide margin either yet I would argue was by far the best horse we’ve ever seen… though that’s a completely different argument, for another day.
In contrast to what some ‘experts’ say, I do like what I saw from Don Poli this season. Two starts, two wins, nothing overly impressive visually, obviously more’s required to win a Gold Cup. Nonetheless winning the Lexus Chase is still winning an important Grade 1 – regardless of how he did it, in terms of style. It’s a prestigious race and it takes a really good horse to land it.
Sure, Don Poli appeared outpaced rather early on, and you could bring up the argument again that he’s a slow horse, who’ll be out of touch once they swing for home in the Gold Cup if he’d show the same traits there. I argue: he has shown again and again in the past as well as here at Leopardstown that he is well able to move up a gear when it’s really needed. He knows to save the best for those key moments.
Not only that. You have to wonder whether Don Poli was actually at his absolute peak in the Lexus Chase. Knowing Willie Mullins I’d rather believe we’ll see an even better conditioned Don Poli when it matters most: at the Festival.
But one last point on the Lexus Chase, which I feel hasn’t been really made by many: while I wholeheartedly agree that on balance a 1/2 lengths defeat of First Lieutenant is short of Gold Cup winning form, I also would say that the runner-up wasn’t necessarily ridden with winning the race in mind, but rather to finish as close as possible – a bit like Arctic Fire in last years Champion Hurdle.
That sort of tactics enabled First Lieutenants jockey to commit much later to a run, asking his mount to go for all too late to win the race, though to preserve as much energy as possible for a big finish, to pass tired horses in front and finish eventually as close as possible.
That’s in stark contrast to what Don Poli had to do, who as a result was in front of First Lieutenant by a couple of lengths clearing the last while going for all of it. Don Poli went on to win his race and seemed to idle once hitting the front in the last 200 yards, while Davy Russell was able to tap into unused reserves on his mount First Lieutenant to finish extremely strongly, without ever looking likely to win – in my mind at least. No doubt Don Poli was the best horse in the race. The quality jumped out.
Now, that is controversial. I’m sure plenty of people will shake their head in disbelief amid such theory, and sure enough, what do I – the armchair jockey – know about riding winners anyway. That’s fine with me.
It’s just another argument adding on to the already impressive list of “pro-arguments” to Don Poli’s cause of winning the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Now, that’s Don Poli. What about the opposition? Top class opposition is awaiting. Don Cossack, the highest rated chaser in training – I was mightily impressed with how he finished in the Ryanair Chase last year, after loads of trouble, making a big mistake, being short of room, yet staying up the hill very strongly. Nonetheless it looks that Don Cossack is not at his best at Cheltenham. Although the Gold Cup trip may see a different horse this time around?
The case of Vautour is a difficult one and could take up another thousand words to write about. Is he going to run in the Gold cup eventually? His owner certainly thinks so. Other sources seem adamant that he’s a sure thing for the Ryanair. Regardless of whether he runs or not, I have to oppose him anyway on the boring argument of stamina. Sure enough, you can say he has this super Cheltenham form, is potentially the most talented chaser in training and he got close enough at Kempton to win the King Goerge. I say: It’s two additional furlongs, plus the daunting hill. At this point in time I believe it’s too far for Vautour, even if he will strip fitter on Gold Cup day.
I’m not really sure about Cue Card. He seems to stay, he’s the form horse you could say and definitely likes it around Cheltenham. I still have my doubts that he really wants it that far. Not only that, I believe Don Poli is simply a more talented horse, who could still improve. I don’t see that with Cue Card.
Although I see that very much in another Willie Mullins runner, Djakadam. Only seven years of age, lightly campaigned this season too and crucially an excellent runner-up in the 2015 Gold Cup. He’s got everything you want to see in a lively contender – however one shadow is casting my mind: his jumping. He fell here at Cheltenham in a Trial in January, and he fell at the Festival in 2014 in the JLT. So that has to be a concern. I find it hard to have him over Don Poli, for that reason.
Let’s not rule out Smad Place, brilliant winner of the Hennessy this season, nor Road To Riches – if he runs – third in Gold Cup last year…. but I can turn and twist it all day long, I always end up with Don Poli as the winner of the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup!
You can still get 6/1 with some firms for Don Poli, which looks outstanding value in my mind. Sure, the final field isn’t 100% clear at this stage, nonetheless in any field this lad has a better than 15% chance.So lump on, as long as you can!