Racing: Bacchanal for Gold Cup revelry

For a few hours today at least, the 74th Cheltenham Gold Cup is classified as a most open contest. Among its 18 runners ­ the largest field since 1982 ­ there are past champions, others for whom ultimate greatness has long been predicted and a sprinkling of toughnut handicappers, the like of which have a proud record in the modern era of the Blue Riband. It appears a near impossibility to call.

For a few hours today at least, the 74th Cheltenham Gold Cup is classified as a most open contest. Among its 18 runners ­ the largest field since 1982 ­ there are past champions, others for whom ultimate greatness has long been predicted and a sprinkling of toughnut handicappers, the like of which have a proud record in the modern era of the Blue Riband. It appears a near impossibility to call.

Those close to the horses, of course, are able to view the contest with more clarity. They can see their representative and a long line in the distance as the troops come charging up the hill at Prestbury Park.

"What constitutes an open Gold Cup?" Noel Chance, the trainer of the likely favourite, Looks Like Trouble, asks. "Is it merely one with lots of runners? You can see that our fellow has won it before and a Royal & SunAlliance [Novices' Chase] at the Festival by a distance. On the form it's him and then Florida Pearl. Ours is maybe not a maligned horse, but he certainly hasn't got the credit he deserves."

Chance's first recollection of a Gold Cup was watching the sparks fly off the swords of Mill House and Arkle when he was a schoolboy. He now resides at Mill House's Lambourn yard of Saxon House and Looks Like Trouble occupies the same box as the old hero.

These are the premises which also sent Mont Tremblant, Mandarin, and The Dikler to collect the ultimate prize, but it is recent history which darkens the prospects of Looks Like Trouble. The big horse last met defeat on Boxing Day of 1999, when he was pulled up in the King George VI Chase at Kempton.

Much of the interim, however, has been spent in the sick bay as a consequence of a tendon injury. Each gallop he now undertakes is the equivalent of a Spitfire pulling out over the Kent countryside. Chance never knows if his runner is coming back in one piece.

In addition, Looks Like Trouble is outside the optimum age range for the Gold Cup, in which eight and nine-year-olds have the best record. The fate of favourites is not persuasive either. Just four of the last 20 have won. Finally, there is another historical giant to slay in that no beast has won consecutive Gold Cups since L'Escargot in 1970-71.

Many components have to fall into place for an equine athlete to win a Blue Riband and good fortune rarely arrives twice. "So many good horses do fall by the wayside," Chance says. "The top ones are always going a stride too quick for their own good. So many horses don't come back at all after winning a Gold Cup."

The figures are also against the Irish contingent, which comprises a third of today's field. Only two winners in the last 20 years have come from over the water. That covers a period, however, when every Irish horse that could raise a gallop was sold to Britain. These days the cream stays at home.

Thus, we again welcome Florida Pearl, twice a Festival winner and twice placed in the Gold Cup. The 10-year-old blew out in his homeland last time, but worked brilliantly at Leopardstown recently.

An enduring image of the gelding, though, are his labours up the final climb here when the incline for him seems to turn into a personal Eiger. His stablemate Alexander Banquet will stay all right, but probably not swiftly enough on good ground which will almost certainly also inconvenience Henry Daly's Behrajan.

The best of the travellers appears to be Foxchapel King, the sort of dour handicapper who can surprise the sleeker models. He has place claims alongside another Spartan in Lord Noelie, one of three runners saddled by Henrietta Knight.

Most fancied of the West Lockinge consignment will be Best Mate, who today has to prove he has the fortitude to go with his undoubted ability. Over this extended trip, it might just be too much for his young body.

There are others with block entries, notably Paul Nicholls, Martin Pipe and Nicky Henderson. The first-named saddles Shotgun Willy and See More Business (another previous winner), who are too inexperienced and too experienced respectively. Pipe has Shooting Light and Cyfor Malta, but such has been Tony McCoy's dithering over which to partner there seems little prospect of either being outstanding.

This, clearly, is not the case for Nicky Henderson's pairing of Marlborough and Bacchanal, both of whom have Festival successes already in the locker. The former is one of the horses who will be held up for a late run, a style which may not lend itself comfortably to the race. This looks to be a championship that will be decided by one of several stalkers in the field.

By way of Mick Fitzgerald's decision to ride Henderson's other runner, Bacchanal, he appears to be Seven Barrows' No1. With this relentless galloper among the contestants it will be a harsh assignment for all out in the Gloucestershire countryside today. Much has been made of the eight-year-old's vaulting technique ­ he can jump high and right like a man joining a double-decker bus ­ and it will be Fitzgerald's mission to place him on the rail where rivals on his outside should correct any inclination to veer off course. It will also be the shortest route.

This is the contender to side with and when it comes to an animal to provoke the riotous celebrations with which the Cheltenham Festival is associated there could be none better named than BACCHANAL (nap 3.15).

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