Oats caught by the snare of statistics

Richard Edmondson on the burden of history that the Gold Cup winner will attempt to throw off next week
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The Independent Online
There will be those who consider the offer of 4-1 about the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Master Oats, to win next week's re-routed King George VI Chase as one of the bets of the season. They are not the same people who devote the hours after twilight to digesting statistics.

In the old days it used to be that winners of the Gold Cup could mop up other prizes before reasserting their omnipotence at Cheltenham; the times when Golden Miller, Cottage Rake, Arkle and, most recently, L'Escargot were supreme.

Since the last-named posted his second consecutive Gold Cup victory, however, enduring success for the Blue Riband winner has been hard to find. When the field lines up on 14 March for this season's renewal it will have been 25 years since a horse either retained or regained the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The morsels have been difficult to find as well. Between them, the last 10 winners of the Gold Cup have gone on to contest 126 races, capturing just 19 of them. The Holy Grail has become the poisoned chalice and victory at the Festival delivers not so much a laurel around the neck as a gin trap on the leg.

Toby Balding is a victim of perhaps the greatest bungee jump in rating of a Gold Cup winner. He sent out Cool Ground to take the 1992 running, after which the gelding (following outings for Balding and a subsequent trainer, David Elsworth) went 20 efforts without glory before dropping down to an amateurs' event.

Balding believes there are many reasons for this diminution of Blue Riband winners. He even discusses sociology, which most of his brethren would think is the name of a novice chaser trained in Lambourn. "The owner band has totally shifted in its emphasis in modern racing from the country- landowner type to people from business, where everything is done pretty quickly," the trainer said. "You have to have immediate results and these days the hardest thing to do is sell a horse that has done nothing."

The chasm between those who would not let a strip of share prices pass in front of them unnoticed and others who could lazily watch the seasons go by means that jumpers these days have a harder time, both in terms of volume and severity of races. "There is no doubt the style of racing has altered and they go much quicker these days," Balding said. "That doesn't make for longer careers."

In Cool Ground's case, he was an unexpected winner of the race in 1992, when Adrian Maguire cajoled him in the closing stages with the vigour of a blacksmith smiting an anvil. The horse may have recovered from his exertions that day, but there was no medicine for what the handicapper passed on. "He was a 10-year-old when he won it and he took a 21lb hike in the handicap," Balding said. "He wasn't good enough to win another Gold Cup and not much else off that weight.

"The winner of the Gold Cup goes straight to the top of the handicap and if they can't go and win a conditions race then they're handicapped out of it."

At 10, Cool Ground was at the top end of the modern limit. For the last 14 years, the winner has been aged either eight, nine or 10, which suggests there is a limited window of opportunity between callowness and the veteran stage.

Jodami was only an eight-year-old when he won in 1993 and apparently destined for a Victorian occupancy of the throne. The gelding has as good a subsequent record of any recent Gold Cup winner, yet he too has been on a remorseless downward curve, finishing second in 1994 and eighth this year, as well as turning in two deeply unimpressive performances in the current campaign.

Peter Beaumont, nevertheless, defends Jodami's record and finds it difficult to understand why his horse should be criticised. "The Gold Cup is always the race to win and that means it's never easy," the trainer said. "With it being the championship race it's always difficult to win and Jodami has done tremendously well to win and be second. You've got to be very thankful to win once, never mind twice."

In yesteryear there were five-year-old winners of the Gold Cup but that no longer occurs as present day thinking is that chasers should still have a teat and bottle in their mouths at that age. The trade of training, like other occupations, has become far more competitive and usually enravelled in the programme for a Gold Cup winner now is the lucrative Grand National, as the horse will never be so well handicapped again.

Horses, though, do not go on to win the Grand National after the Gold Cup (unless they are called Golden Miller and they were racing over 60 years ago) and they sometimes do not come back at all.

Last season's Blue Riband, in particular, was a destructive race on soft going, and even the winner looked to be labouring just after half-way. Master Oats subsequently ran without success in the Grand National and without any vigour at all on his reappearance at Chepstow. Many will forgive him that and pledge monetary support for the King George at Sandown tomorrow week. History suggests they will be wrong.

GOLD CUP WINNERS' SUBSEQUENT RECORD

Year Winner Subsequent record

1986 Dawn Run After fighting back to win the most memorable Gold Cup of recent decades, she fell at the first fence at Aintree before an ambitious assault on France's Champion Hurdle. Second in a prep race, she broke her neck in a fall when challenging for the lead. No wins from three races.

1987 The Thinker Snow could not prevent him from winning the Gold Cup but without that element he was never able to reproduce the outstanding form he showed that day. Nevertheless, he did very well to be third under top weight in a Grand National and was preparing for another assault on that race when breaking a leg at home. Two wins from 11 races.

1988 Charter Party A martyr to his feet which were afflicted by navicular disease, he nevertheless managed a demanding but unsuccessful campaign of eight races, highlighted by a third in the Gold Cup, the season after his Cheltenham win. Retired after one run the next season due to a tendon injury. No wins from nine races.

1989 Desert Orchid The charismatic grey added two more King George VI Chases and an Irish National to his tally but was not able to again overcome his aversion to Cheltenham (one win from eight attempts) and finished third in the next two Gold Cups. Seven wins from 17 races.

1990 Norton's Coin The most astonishing of Gold Cup winners produced a few more surprises when throwing away a race at Aintree because he did not like being in front and then turning in a top- class effort next time to defeat Waterloo Boy and Pegwell Bay at Cheltenham. Deteriorat ed rapidly soon after and decided to turn the game in by refusing at one of Newbury's ditches one day. One win from 17 races.

1991 Garrison Savannah Always injury prone and took three years to win again after Cheltenham success but last season managed to score twice. By that time he had deteriorated by 35lb according to Timeform figures. Three wins from 27 races.

1992 Cool Ground Went 20 races without winning after tough Gold Cup tussle with The Fellow until taking amateurs' event shortly before retirement last season. One win from 22 races.

1993 Jodami Has not dominated chasing scene as his emphatic Cheltenham win indicated he would. Second in 1994 Gold Cup and tailed-off in this year's race, his jumping has been incon sistent and he has sometimes looked lazy. Four wins from 12 races.

1994 The Fellow Battered in the Grand National but won at Auteuil in May 1994. Seemed to lose inter est the following season and was pulled up in the King George. One win from six races.

1995 Master Oats Seventh when favourite for the Grand National and pulled up in three-runner race at Chep stow earlier this month. No wins from two races.

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