There can come a time in a young chaser’s career when everything is in place for the first big win. For Johns Spirit, Jonjo O’Neill’s attractively weighted runner in this afternoon’s Paddy Power Gold Cup, the centrepiece of Cheltenham’s three-day Open Meeting, that time is now.
This progressive six-year-old first promised that he had what it takes for a race like this back in January when he chased home the highly regarded Katenko at Sandown. However, though essentially a very good jumper for one so young, the occasional clumsy lapse prevented him from gaining that breakthrough in the high-profile handicaps he contested in the spring.
Yet with another summer behind him and more practice at home, Johns Spirit looked much more like the finished article when reappearing at Cheltenham a month ago; jumping fluently, travelling smoothly throughout the race and brushing aside decent opposition when jockey Richie McLernon asked him to complete the job.
With time still very much on his side, Johns Spirit (2.30 Cheltenham) may be destined for much better things, but this huge prize would make a fine way to announce his arrival in the big time.
No horse in the 20-strong line-up will have more vocal support among a packed house than the locally trained course specialist Champion Court, the subject of a substantial gamble during the week.
Ballynagour, intriguingly representing David Pipe instead of the classy Dynaste (who would surely have started favourite), has also attracted significant market interest and must also be taken extremely seriously.
There was a time when punters hardly needed to glance at the runners and riders for this race; they simply backed whatever Martin Pipe was running. Between 1996 and 2005 Pipe’s runners obliged seven times. In all, the Pipes have won this race a record nine times, David with Great Endeavour in 2011.
Ballynagour could not have been more impressive when bolting up on his English debut at Warwick in February, but then finished tamely at the Cheltenham Festival (reportedly breaking a blood vessel) and is apparently not the most straightforward to train.
Another with a better chance than his odds imply is Carrickboy, who won the race Ballynagour flopped in at the Festival, springing a 50-1 shock. He is a big price again today (25-1 has been freely available all week) off his 8lb higher rating, but Venetia Williams’ bold-jumping nine-year-old ran well enough for long enough on his comeback at Aintree to suggest that he is no one-hit wonder.
Pipe should not leave Prestbury Park empty-handed. Goulanes (1.50 Cheltenham) won over hurdles at this corresponding fixture last year before making an even better impression over fences and is one to follow whenever stamina is at a premium. He can start off by landing the Murphy Group Handicap Chase.
Silver Eagle (3.00 Cheltenham) went close at the course last month and, with the form given a boost yesterday by the horse who beat him, Thomas Crapper, Kim Bailey’s grey makes plenty of appeal stepped back up to three miles in the Ultima Handicap Hurdle.
Paul Nicholls’ Port Melon (3.35 Cheltenham) looked a star in the making when winning two point-to-points last spring and does not appear to have a great deal to beat on his debut under rules in the Neptune Investments Novices’ Hurdle.