The Cheltenham Gold Cup picture remains as muddy as the ground here yesterday after Irish raider Rince Ri landed a sizeable gamble to take the Pillar Property Chase, in recent years the most reliable big-race trial. The gelding, who had been available at 20-1 in the morning with Ladbrokes and was backed down to 9-2, coped well with atrocious conditions that turned the race into a gruelling slog, but even his trainer, Ted Walsh, questions whether he is truly up to either championship standard or attitude.
Rince Ri, without a win for nearly a year and beaten by a handicapper two weeks ago, gave his supporters only one bad moment, when he and rider Ruby Walsh differed in their views on how the third-last obstacle should be negotiated. But young Walsh sat tight and, as the pair returned to rousing acclaim, the bright, pristine state of his maroon-and-white striped silks in the gloom told the story of the race. Rince Ri either shared the lead or was in front the whole way and had enough left up the final testing uphill run to see off Legal Right by three-and-a-half lengths.
Given any ground but firm, Rince Ri will be back here 46 days hence for the Gold Cup, for which he is now a best-priced 16-1. But Ted Walsh said: "I wouldn't say he was a black-and-white Gold Cup horse and, if we think there's another prize to be taken in on the way we'll go for it, rather than pin everything on the big one. But I was delighted to win today. I was disappointed with him last time, but you take what comes your way and he handled the conditions better than the others."
Blinkers may be applied to Rince Ri's canny chestnut head in the future. "I thought last time at Leopardstown he wasn't giving 100 per cent," said Walsh. "Today, when he made that mistake, he was travelling well and you don't like to see horses do stupid things when they're not under pressure. I'm not saying he is ungenuine, but blinds may help him keep his mind on the job."
Ted Walsh cited See More Business, The Fellow and Garrison Savannah as Gold Cup winners whose attention span was improved by headgear, and Walsh junior confirmed that Rince Ri's mind had not appeared to be wholly engaged. "I gave him a squeeze to take off," he said, "and he ignored me and put down instead. He didn't seem to be concentrating."
The horse may not have been, but the travelling faithful were, for at his best and most obliging Rince Ri is a high-class performer, and the generosity of Britain's biggest bookmaking firm was not spurned. "All of us who came over on the plane this morning were on at the 20s," said Ted Walsh, "and that includes all the Irish bookies."
Two years ago, Rince Ri had been travelling well in the last Gold Cup to be run when he blundered and unseated Walsh three out. That fateful fence was omitted from yesterday's race due to the atrocious conditions, which were described by all the senior jockeys as the worst they had encountered here. An inch of rain fell during the morning and the horses were splashing through standing water at several points.
Two other high-profile Gold Cup candidates, Lord Noelie and Cyfor Malta, were left floundering in the mud and a third, Marlborough, defected an hour before the race, the first title eliminator since reigning champion Looks Like Trouble nailed his colours to the mast at Wincanton last weekend.
Nicky Henderson, Marlborough's trainer, was on the way in rather more clement weather to Grantley Adams International airport in Barbados when he withdrew his charge after hearing from stable jockey Mick Fitzgerald. The horse will be redirected to the Jim Ford Chase at Wincanton next month to avoid a clash with his stablemate Bacchanal in the Aon Chase at Newbury.
With no obvious challenger emerging yesterday, Looks Like Trouble remains favourite in an open market at 6-1. Best Mate is the next choice, with Lord Noelie, Shooting Light, Bacchanal, First Gold and the Irish pair Sackville and Florida Pearl packing the lists at 10-1.
A Saturday treble for Tony McCoy is becoming commonplace, and yesterday's three winners – Polar Red, Royal Auclair and Copeland – may have been slight compensation for Cyfor Malta's disappointing performance and the withdrawal of the likely favourite Rodock, who was off his food, from the Cleeve Hurdle. The day's Grade One feature went to one of the few horses to show a burst of acceleration during the afternoon, Kates Charm.
At Doncaster, the 4-1 favourite, Moor Lane, ridden by Barry Fenton, led all the way to win the Great Yorkshire Chase, 51 years to the day since his trainer Ian Balding's father, Gerald, sent out Arctic Gold, ridden by Tim Molony, to win the same race.Reuse content