The vacancy is not just for a mount in a steeplechase, but for a place in history. For while Sir Des Champs holds outstanding claims in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup, the one thing he was lacking on the eve of the race was a jockey. A heartbreaking injury to Davy Russell left connections facing a dilemma – and a blossoming rider on the brink of a momentous breakthrough.
At 20, Bryan Cooper is the most luminous new talent to emerge from the shadow cast by the likes of Ruby Walsh, Tony McCoy and Russell. He only rode his first Festival winner on Thursday and Willie Mullins – in contrast, Ireland’s most prolific Festival trainer – may well be unnerved by the prospect of turning to a relative novice to redress the most painful omission in his own CV. But most of those who together comprise a vintage generation of jump jockeys are already engaged in the big race, and the rules do not permit a jockey like McCoy to defect from an outsider to one of the favourites.
Mullins first had to consult Michael O’Leary. The Ryanair boss, who retains Russell, was horrified to learn that the jockey had punctured a lung in a fall the previous day. O’Leary asked Cooper to ride First Lieutenant, who finished second in the big race he sponsored on Wednesday’s card, and last night it seemed as though the young man would now be given a still bigger opportunity.
According to Tony Martin, it will be fully deserved. The trainer of Benefficient was thrilled with Cooper’s winning ride. “This is the next Ruby,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, Ruby, Barry Geraghty, Paul Carberry and Tony McCoy are out there on their own – but this young fellow is on the way up, and will be there when the others are long retired.”
And punters should take a similar view of what has become a puzzling market. Long Run remains the most accomplished horse in the field but finds himself behind three others, all novices last season, in the betting. When he won this race two years ago, he saw off two other Gold Cup winners in Denman and Kauto Star, and he has just won his second King George VI Chase. That was as grim and gruelling a race as has been run all winter, run at a reckless tempo through the mud, and Long Run was the only one able to hang in there. Captain Chris arrived from way off the pace to join issue in the run to the last and Long Run and his excellent amateur rider, Sam Waley-Cohen, both showed terrific heart to prevail.
The fact remains, however, that he could manage only third last year. And even his trainer now seems to believe that Long Run could do with some fresh impetus. Nicky Henderson has decided to fit him with cheekpieces today, and the word from Seven Barrows is that they have had a startling effect on his preparations. None the less, with however heavy a heart, it seems reasonable to expect one of the graduating novices to deny him the top of the podium. But which one is best equipped to make that final step?
Silviniaco Conti still has most questions to answer. He has made surprising improvement this season, and his jumping will be a crucial asset – not to mention Walsh in the saddle. But Long Run was rusty when running him close enough at Haydock in November, and you have to doubt whether Silviniaco Conti can stretch his energy in so extreme a test of stamina.
Bobs Worth does look rock solid. He has won novice races at the Festival over both hurdles and fences, and made a seamless transition to the senior ranks when winning a very strong Hennessy in November. The one and only reservation is that he remains relatively short of experience for this kind of test, having been forced to miss his intended trial. This will be only his sixth start over fences.
In contrast, Willie Mullins has given SIR DES CHAMPS a classic, step-by-step build-up to his big test with three races in elite company at level weights. Like Bobs Worth, Sir Des Champs has won both his starts at this meeting, on both occasions over shorter trips and strongest at the finish. After merely blowing away cobwebs behind the top-class Flemenstar on his reappearance, he showed just why Mullins was taken a patient path back here when jumping without fluency in the Lexus Chase. He was beaten less than a length, even so, and everything duly clicked into place when he outstayed Flemenstar in his final rehearsal, at Leopardstown last month. The runner-up was admittedly found to be below par, but that does not alter the fact that Sir Des Champs – having made just ten starts in his life – combines an unexposed profile with an artful degree of seasoning.
Those looking for big value should keep in mind Sunnyhillboy. His priority is again the National, but he flagged up his brilliant run at Aintree last year by winning well at this meeting and could surpass expectations at a huge price for the men who mourn Synchronised. Representing the stable he does, however, Sir Des Champs is nearly guaranteed to reach a new peak today. Primed week by week for the last 12 months, and with his stamina finally brought fully to bear, he can complete a nightmare for poor Russell – and a dream for his replacement.