Racing: Hussard can spoil international big match

Click to follow
The Independent Online

An unwise assumption has been made about the centrepiece of the Festival, today's Cheltenham Gold Cup. It is that the Blue Riband is little more than a match, a contest between Best Mate and Beef Or Salmon. It is admittedly a romantic collision between the leviathans of British and Irish steeplechasing, yet the gravest opponent to both is not the other but the pattern of history.

An unwise assumption has been made about the centrepiece of the Festival, today's Cheltenham Gold Cup. It is that the Blue Riband is little more than a match, a contest between Best Mate and Beef Or Salmon. It is admittedly a romantic collision between the leviathans of British and Irish steeplechasing, yet the gravest opponent to both is not the other but the pattern of history.

Best Mate is undeniably a great racehorse, but several of his quality have attempted to retain a Gold Cup over the last 30 years and none have delivered. The chasing championship, no matter how cleanly it is taken, appears to leave a residual defect on its winner.

Best Mate has certainly not looked like damaged goods this year, winning on his Huntingdon reappearance and then sweeping up the other notable conditions event of the season for staying chasers, Kempton's King George VI Chase.

Taken in isolation, though, the eight-year-old's two big wins do not represent outstanding feats in the form book. Plenty of animals before and since have been able to beat Commanche Court, last year's Cheltenham runner-up by a length and three-quarters. Similarly, a length and a half defeat of Marlborough on Boxing Day is not an effort to scream from the rooftops.

Best Mate is reported to be a stronger beast this season by connections, but they can be slapped by the statistic that only four of the last 21 favourites have won a Gold Cup. In addition, everything fell right for the champion 12 months ago when he was skillfully piloted by Jim Culloty.

Beef Or Salmon's jockey is Timmy Murphy, who is riding towards redemption after his release from Wormwood Scrubs last autumn. His mount has arrived like a comet on the chasing scene, crushing the established brigade in Ireland this winter. To find the last novice to win a Gold Cup, however, we have to go to 1974 and Captain Christy.

Beef Or Salmon has been impressive in small fields but will now find himself in a stampede. This is strikingly similar to the scenario which faced Rhinestone Cowboy in the Champion Hurdle. The seven-year-old may be the king of his own back yard but he is out in the wide world now, for the first time competing outside his homeland.

For a dispassionate view on the relative merits of the big two we can go to the most successful Gold Cup trainer of modern times, Noel Chance, who has won two of the last five Blue Ribands with Mr Mulligan (1997) and Looks Like Trouble (2000). "The Gold Cup is a bloody hard race to win with a novice," he says. "We have seen many try and fail, including Dorans Pride. If you cast your mind back there was Gloria Victis [who perished in the 2000 running], who was doing everything so easily, winning the Racing Post Chase by half the track. Look what happened to him.

"Experience of this day and race counts for a lot. You must have a seriously mature horse.

"If Best Mate turns up on the day fighting fit then he's going to take an awful lot of beating. He's been trained for the race and the ground will suit him.

"Beef Or Salmon's a very good horse and possibly a Gold Cup winner, yet I'd have reservations about whether that's this year. But this new rivalry is great for Cheltenham. If Beef Or Salmon hits the front at the top of the hill you'll be able to hear the roar in Lambourn."

The placed horses last year, Commanche Court and, in particular, See More Business, should again go well, but, in the second rank in the betting is a horse with the form and connections to upset those who make this a head to head contest. Peter Beaumont is regarded in racing as a painstaking practitioner, a trainer of distinction. His is not a glamorous operation. The clue is in the name of the base, Foulrice Farm. Yet his premises at Brandsby, just north of York, have already provided a Gold Cup victor in Jodami. Now there could be another in HUSSARD COLLONGES (nap 3.15).

The eight-year-old knows this terrain and occasion well as he was successful 12 months ago in the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Chase, the nursery for future Gold Cup winners. On that occasion he had Colonel Braxton among the vanquished and that horse got much closer to Beef Or Salmon at Leopardstown recently. He also has persuasive form via Marlborough with Best Mate.

This season's efforts are not glittering, but they disguise solid efforts giving away chunks of weight in high-quality handicaps. Hussard Collonges will not be the most fancied runner in the Gold Cup, nor the flashiest. But he will be the first.

Comments