The race should certainly match its billing, as a showdown between the old guard and a young pretender – but not necessarily in the way everyone expects. The Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup today brings together three horses who have between them won the last four runnings, and a new star in Long Run. But their contrasting profiles are also represented, at much better odds, by two others in the field: the old rogue Tidal Bay and a rising force in Pandorama.
Most punters have long given up on Tidal Bay. It would generally be considered the height of credulity to be taken in by his strong finish against Imperial Commander, last year's Gold Cup winner, at Haydock in November. The theory goes that Imperial Commander had committed a long way out, and was simply idling on the run-in as Tidal Bay, having made his usual protests as the screw was turned, finally deigned to pass a few beaten horses. Tidal Bay ran an almost identical race on his only start since, at Cheltenham in January, all but tailed off before charging after the winner late on.
Maddening as he is, the demands of this race are ideally tailored to his idiosyncrasies. He has always adored the hill here, and especially the hectic tempo of Festival races – beaten only a neck as a novice hurdler, and then returning over fences the following season to win the Arkle by 13 lengths.
His strike rate since is singularly unimpressive, but he has largely been confined to small fields and showed the engine is still intact when reverting to hurdles for a decisive success – off a strong pace – in the Cleeve Hurdle last season. That was also the first time he was ridden by Brian Hughes, a blossoming talent who seems increasingly attuned to Tidal Bay's quirks.
At 20-1, Tidal Bay looks a viable each-way bet for those prepared to tolerate his fits and starts. Regardless of the consensus about the Haydock race, he had sprinted past Imperial Commander barely strides after the post.
Most of us would be reluctant, however, to risk a win bet on a horse who leaves all the fortitude to his backers. Pandorama provides a very wholesome contrast. He is tough, reliable and progressive, and has won all bar two of his career starts, pardonably outpaced by Mikael d'Haguenet over hurdles, when that horse was in unstoppable form; and soon pulled up on his first visit to these shores, at Newbury last autumn, having made an early mistake and then been hampered.
That disappointment left him at a crossroads, but he emphatically took the right turn on his only subsequent start, thrashing seasoned Grade One operators in the Lexus Chase at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting. Apart from at Newbury, his only previous start at three miles had been at the same fixture last season, when he rallied to beat the subsequent RSA Chase winner Weapon's Amnesty.
Here we have a staying chaser in the classic Gold Cup mould, big-hearted and bold, who has only just started out in his optimal discipline. True, he missed out on valuable experience when a setback ruled him out of the Hennessy Gold Cup last month – won by Kempes, who was probably held when unseating two out in the Lexus. But the notorious Festival vicissitudes of Pandorama's trainer, Noel Meade, have sometimes been traced to the use of too much fuel in the first half of the season. Coming here with a fresh horse could well help one of the best men in the game redress all those years of heartache. It would be no less an injustice were Paul Carberry to retire without winning a Gold Cup.
The weather forecast offers reassurance with regard to the one big reservation about Pandorama. Rain is expected this morning and, given that Meade has otherwise proposed withdrawing the horse, that is just as well. If it turns really soft, Pandorama would become an outstanding bet at 12-1.
It would be fantastic to see Kauto Star win his third Gold Cup, and excuses have been found for his submission at Kempton last time. But it is contentious to claim that he only needs to be forgiven one disappointing run. The alternative view, that he has now looked past his peak three times running, would seem readily sustained by the passing of the years.
His stablemate Denman is surely approaching the brow of the hill, despite running with characteristic honesty under a huge weight on his only start of the season. He has since undergone a wind operation, and at 11 it is hard to picture him producing the career best he may yet need today.
That is thanks to the presence of Long Run, who confirmed himself top-class when deposing Kauto Star at Kempton. But while other explanations have been quite plausibly proposed, defeat in both previous visits implies that he is less effective on this track. His gifted amateur partner may find that the horse simply requires too much organising at his fences, for too long, to have enough left for the hill.
And what of the one who sets the gold standard? Imperial Commander's absence since November presents no problem to a horse with such a good record fresh. But not a single horse that completed behind him last year has won a race since, and all the hype about Kauto Star and Denman may have given a dangerous sheen to his performance. His stable is not in especially convincing form.
The opposite is true of Pandorama, who can crown an incredible, indelible week for the Irish.
During the Festival, top Flat trainers give their views from the other side of the fence on jump racing's showcase occasion. Totesport is providing a free £100 stake, with any winnings going to their chosen charity.
Richard Hannon Reigning champion trainer
In the Gold Cup I'll put the money on Long Run, who was so very impressive when winning the King George at Kempton.Reuse content