By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)
The Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup is the jewel in the crown of the Cheltenham Festival and, to some, of the entire National Hunt season. It is one of the most coveted prizes in the sport and twenty-five horses currently hold provisional entries.
Just six of last season’s contenders could line up in this year’s renewal – Minella Indo (1st), A Plus Tard (2nd), Al Boum Photo (3rd), Royal Pagaille (6th), Santini (PU) and Lostintranslation (PU). Lostintranslation has an Ultima entry, as well as one for the Ryanair, as does Allaho, Asterion Forlonge, Chatham Street Lad, Conflated, Franco De Port, Melon and Saint Calvados.
This year’s renewal has a wonderfully open look to it. At present, there is no standout performer in the division. The key players have somewhat taken it in turns to win the critical races in the lead up to the centrepiece.
I have selected ten key races that offer form-lines for the Gold Cup –
* 30/10/2021 – Ladbrokes Champion Chase, Leopardstown
The Cheltenham Festival ended with Irish domination but it was Frodon who got first blood for the 2021/22 season over in Ireland. The English raider won in typical Frodon style – from the front and jumping boldly. 2021 Gold Cup winner Minella Indo stalked him through the race with Galvin and Delta Work accompanying each other a few lengths behind.
With about a mile to go, Rachael Blackmore hassled Minella Indo up to Frodon’s girths but couldn’t loom upsides. Galvin and Delta Work moved to contest the lead with the other two horses as Minella Indo was under pressure. Meanwhile, Galvin nosed ahead momentarily after the last, before being out-battled and finished second. Delta Work was closing in on Minella Indo at the line. It was slightly disappointing from Henry De Bromhead’s charge, but apparently he wasn’t quite fit.
* 20/11/21 – Betfair Chase, Haydock
A Plus Tard became the first Irish horse to win the Haydock showpiece and he did so in fantastic style. Once the field turned for home, A Plus Tard switched out from the slipstream of Royal Pagaille and Rachael Blackmore remained motionless, meanwhile Charlie Deutsch in the pink and green Rich Ricci silks began to scrub along.
Soon, A Plus Tard was an ever-growing number of lengths clear, announcing himself as fighting fit and ready to dominate the season ahead. In behind, Imperial Aura jumped with poor accuracy throughout. His best jump placed him in the firing line between Royal Pagaille and Bristol De Mai. This was short-lived with David Bass asking for a big stride and the gelding crumbling on landing after the next obstacle.
An eyecatcher was Chatham Street Lad, who raced eagerly and finished a brilliant third, especially considering he sustained an injury to his knee that required stitches.
4/12/21 – Many Clouds Chase, Aintree
The Many Clouds Chase field contained some true favourites, like Tiger Roll and Native River. It was a strong grade two with a good size field. However, it was the turn of youngster Protektorat to land the spoils. It was a demolition job, to put it simply. Being at the track, I didn’t fully appreciate how lit up Protektorat became as they galloped down the back straight on each circuit, which only makes his winning effort more impressive. Conditions were terrible that day and horses were finishing very tired. Imperial Aura pulled up before they embarked on the second circuit. Later, Protektorat out-jumped Native River as they exited the back straight and, ridden by Bridget Andrews, jumped the last few obstacles and came home twenty-five lengths clear.
* 5/12/21 – John Durkan Chase, Punchestown
The 2021 John Durkan was filled with quality horses in glorious sunshine, meaning a few fences had to be omitted. Allaho had his own way in the lead. The runners settled down with Melon and Asterion Forlonge stalking him on the inner and Tornado Flyer and Franco De Port in the back half of the field. Tornado Flyer put in a poor jump at the first and the complexity of the race didn’t especially change until they went around the last dolled-off obstacle when he seemed to become unbalanced, which caused him to be completely outpaced. Asterion Forlonge was about to give Allaho something to think about until he launched Bryan Cooper out of the saddle at the third last, hampering Melon. Allaho made a mess of the second last but it didn’t dent his finish, winning by two lengths. Tornado Flyer stayed on incredibly well, seemingly unsuited to the trip. Franco De Port dropped out of contention and it was a solid performance by Melon to be third.
* 26/12/21 – King George VI Chase, Kempton
For many, not all, there was a surprise winner of the King George – Tornado Flyer. Like at Punchestown, he made an error at the first and languished in the second half of the field for most of the way. Chantry House landed sharply at the first ditch and Saint Calvados made an error when detached. Both horses raced wide, but only Saint Calvados looked enthusiastic about his racing, fresh after having ten months off. Mister Fisher made fiddly errors throughout. Chantry House had to be ridden to embark on the second circuit and Minella Indo had to be pushed along after the first fence going away from the stands.
Bryony Frost on Frodon slowed down the pace of the race to get a breather on the turn into the back straight, reducing the distances between each horse. A poor jump by Chantry House forced Nico De Boinville to pull him up, meanwhile Saint Calvados was pulling double up the outside. By the fourteenth, Minella Indo had dropped out of contention and Gavin Sheehan was allowing Saint Calvados to stride into the lead, a manoeuvre that has caused Sheehan to no longer have the ride on the Brooks horses with Paul Nicholls.
Lostintranslation was being pushed along severely as they turned for home but Danny Mullins was waiting to time it right on Tornado Flyer. He jumped into the lead at two out and, for a fleeting second, it looked as though Asterion Forlonge would play a part, but, like at Punchestown, he came to grief and parted company with Bryan Cooper. No one knows how much of an impact he would have played in proceedings but Tornado Flyer stayed the three miles impressively, seemingly benefitting from the extra distance compared to the John Durkan.
* 28/12/21 – Savills Chase, Leopardstown
Galvin raced prominently in this race, compared to the Ladbrokes Champion Chase at the start of the season, filling the second spot for most of the way. Melon followed him, with Delta Work, Franco De Port and A Plus Tard in behind. Kemboy took them along at a good pace and, at four out, Franco De Port edged into third momentarily and Galvin took closer order to the leader.
A Plus Tard travelling much better than Galvin as they turned for home. Davy Russell managed to switch his mount to be on A Plus Tard’s right and, after the last, switched his whip and Galvin seemed to grow wings to bridge the roughly two length deficit and nab A Plus Tard on the line. The horse well and truly stayed the trip and was extremely brave.
29/01/22 – Cotswold Chase, Cheltenham
Watching it, the runners didn’t seem to be going overly quick on good ground; officially, it was 8.81s slow. Santini led them along with Chantry House and Aye Right following. Chantry House’s jumping was inaccurate and stunted. He seemed to catch the top of the fences and his head would go up and his backend land sharply. It never looked like he would fall but, with an eye on the fast-paced, elite Gold Cup, the knocks to his momentum are hardly ideal, as seen in the King George. Fence seventeen saw him put in a slow leap, causing him to be pushed along, slightly detached from Santini and Aye Right, who was travelling best, as they progressed into the straight.
Santini had the benefit of the rail to help him with his challenge until Aye Right switched and forced Nick Scholfield to plot a new course on the seemingly revitalised ten-year-old. Chantry House accelerated to be in the lead at the last and put his head down to win. It took so much out of him and he finished a very tired horse. That isn’t ideal, considering how much more of a test the Gold Cup is.
* 5/02/22 – Irish Gold Cup, Leopardstown
Minella Indo had a new jockey for this race, Robbie Power. He was ridden in a less prominent position than he was in the King George, alongside Delta Work. Similarly, Asterion Forlonge was ridden conservatively but never really showed up. Conflated followed Frodon up the inner and was first to take closer order. At the final ditch, he flew into the lead, catching everyone else off guard. By the turn for home, there was daylight between him and his rivals, who were all being pushed along. He popped the last and, despite Minella Indo’s admirable attempts, Conflated won by six and a half lengths. He improved massively on all known form and Davy Russell gave him a good ride.
12/02/22 – Denman Chase, Newbury
Only two horses in the line-up for the Denman Chase, a key trial, actually had entries in the Gold Cup – Royal Pagaille and Imperial Aura. Clan Des Obeaux is not a Cheltenham fan, De Rasher Counter was coming off an injury-enforced absence and Eldorado Allen was trying three miles for the first time. Brendan Powell was able to dictate the pace on Eldorado Allen and it worked effectively, enabling the grey, who was widely acknowledged as a two miler before this point, to stay three miles and win in great style. Imperial Aura put in a bold display of jumping to accompany him and raced with confidence. Sadly, a poor jump completely knocked the stuffing out of him and he pulled up sharply. He has so much ability; it must be so frustrating for connections. Hopefully, nothing is seriously wrong with him. It would be a surprise to see him in the Gold Cup after his last two performances. Royal Pagaille had bravely won the Peter Marsh three weeks previously but he was no match for Eldorado Allen. Despite jumping the second last neck-and-neck, he couldn’t create an advantage and, whilst battling back, was second by two and a quarter lengths.
Other Notable Races
The 19th February saw both the Red Mills Chase and the Ascot Chase. In the Red Mills, over two and a half miles, Gold Cup entrant Melon stormed to a six-length victory. He beat much lesser company but this success was his first since landing a beginners’ chase in December 2019. Unfortunately, Chatham Street Lad was a non-runner after getting cast in his box and it would’ve been fascinating to see how he got on. Hopefully, it hasn’t derailed his Cheltenham target but I guess it will be touch and go.
Over at Ascot, it was the Irish that prevailed with Fakir D’Oudairies taking the spoils, amongst just four finishers. He looks well on target for the Ryanair and Aintree beyond that. Lostintranslation ran in the race too, but hated the ground, eventually pulling up. The yard also has Eldorado Allen in the Ryanair and it wouldn’t be unfeasible to see Lostintranslation try his luck in the shorter top-tier chase as his form figures over three miles plus since winning the 2019 Betfair Chase read: P33PP5. Interestingly, he has been handed an entry in the Ultima, which would be his first ever run in handicap company.
Also pulling up was Saint Calvados, who ran so eye-catchingly in the King George. He was unable to build on that effort because he burst a blood vessel. Paul Nicholls has sorted out plenty of horses with that issue before, but it would be a surprise to see him at Cheltenham. The Ryanair is the target for Mister Fisher, despite his Gold Cup entry, after finishing a tired fourth on conditions that didn’t suit in the Ascot Chase.
How The Form Worked Out
Defined by the position of Delta Work and Melon, who appeared most in the aforementioned races (*starred*), I complied the lengths between each horse to make a prospective finishing order, shown in the image above. The result would be…
2nd A Plus Tard / Allaho (joint)
5th Tornado Flyer
6th Minella Indo
7th Franco De Port
8th Royal Pagaille
9th Asterion Forlonge
10th Saint Calvados
11th Delta Work
13th Chatham Street Lad
As you can see, there is an Irish domination here typical of last year’s Festival. It seems, in this particular race, the Irish have a stranglehold on the top contenders. Also, they have been running against each other all season and, when they have ventured over to England, their horses win, take A Plus Tard and Tornado Flyer as examples.
Four of the entrants have no direct form ties previously addressed –
Ahoy Senor – I was so excited to see Ahoy Senor over fences after his sensational grade one novice hurdle win at Aintree; fences were always going to be his game. After unseating first time out over the larger obstacles, he has developed a reputation for being a novicey jumper. He travels so powerfully through his races and his run at Wetherby will have taught him so much. It has been fascinating to watch how he has mentally developed through the season. I would be disappointed if he didn’t go to the Gold Cup but he is in excellent hands with Lucinda Russell.
Al Boum Photo – If anyone’s credentials have been boosted from just standing in a stable, it is Al Boum Photo. A dual Gold Cup winner, he was third last year behind Minella Indo and A Plus Tard, staying on at the finish but never threatening. He was second to Clan Des Obeaux at Punchestown after that and won his race at Tramore as he has done on the last three New Year’s Days. The debate about whether he should run more always surrounds him but we have to trust Willie Mullins to have him fit on the day.
Fiddlerontheroof – Colin Tizzard’s charge started his season winning the Colin Parker at Carlisle and it put him spot on for a tilt at the Ladbrokes Trophy, a race that used to be a plum trial for the Gold Cup. Marginally hampered by Remastered’s unfortunate fall at the top of the home straight, he had a target to aim at with Cloudy Glen out in front. He made up a massive number of lengths between the third last and final fence, but he had to fiddle to get a stride, whereas Charlie Deutsch completely gunned his mount into the last, winning him the race. When next seen, Fiddlerontheroof got tired and wobbly on soft ground at Ascot with a missing shoe and was caught close home by Fortescue, who carried almost a stone less. I rave about Monkfish who was six lengths ahead of him at last season’s Festival, so I would be a hypocrite not to give Fiddlerontheroof a small each-way chance.
Run Wild Fred – This horse has so many entries, but much more experience over fences than most of his fellow novices. He began his career over fences in October 2020 and ran consistently against good horses. Last April, he finished second in the Irish Grand National but still didn’t win a race until the Troytown in November. He was beaten eight lengths by Fury Road in a grade one and they chose to keep him at home on 22nd February because of the ground. He’ll be fresh for the Festival but will probably head to the National Hunt Chase.
Mount Ida – It is wonderful to see a mare in this race. She looks to emulate Dubacilla, who finished second to Master Oats in the Gold Cup and fourth to Royal Athlete in the Grand National of 1995. Mount Ida is similarly a tough, talented mare, but often has large breaks between her races, suggesting she is far from straightforward. She won a mares’ race at Clonmel in November and won again, beating Elimay, on New Years’ Day. Winner of the Kim Muir last season, she stays incredibly well and it would be a tragedy if she went to the Mares’ Chase instead.
Final Line-Up Predictions
15 Runners – Al Boum Photo (Paul Townsend), A Plus Tard (Rachael Blackmore), Aye Right (Brian Hughes), Chantry House (Nico De Boinville), Conflated (Jack Kennedy), Delta Work (Mark Walsh), Fiddlerontheroof (Brendan Powell), Franco De Port (Mr Patrick Mullins), Galvin (Davy Russell), Minella Indo (Robbie Power), Protektorat (Harry Skelton), Royal Pagaille (Charlie Deutsch), Santini (Nick Scholfield), Tornado Flyer (Danny Mullins), Mount Ida (Mr Jamie Codd).
There is a distinct absence of front runners in the Gold Cup. Recently, this responsibility has fallen to Frodon but he has been given an entry in the Ultima instead. I can’t help feeling as though this brings the form of the Leopardstown Champion Chase into question. The race contained Galvin, Minella Indo and Delta Work with the latter pair being beaten significantly enough by Frodon, who hasn’t looked the force of old since then.
Gordon Elliott could potentially have four runners in the race so one of his could be on pace-making duties. If Mount Ida’s definitive target is the Grand National, she could take them along in front rank, like she did on her first start of the campaign. If they’re aiming her at this, she could be held up and produced late like she was in the Kim Muir last season, in which she beat Ladbrokes Trophy hero Cloudy Glen.
When Galvin came good in the Savills, he raced more prominently than on his previous outing. He has stamina in abundance and looked slightly outpaced before staying on strongly. He could do all of the donkey-work in front and still be comfortable but, regardless of how the race plays out, he will always be vulnerable to a horse with a better change of gear, like when he was outpaced by Imperial Aura’s finishing kick at the Festival in 2020.
Ahoy Senor could lead the field, despite being untried at the trip, if connections choose to run him. It would allow him to be given a good sight at his fences, something that is critical for his success. The new course will suit him perfectly and he would be a great addition to the line-up. That seems unlikely now, unfortunately. Another English runner with a chance is Santini and, when he finished second in 2020, he was prominent. His run in the Cotswold Chase was massively encouraging and it seems as though there is still plenty of life in the ten-year-old.
The winner of the 2020 Gold Cup was Al Boum Photo and, this year, he appears to be a promising each way contender. The only downside is the negative reports coming from the Willie Mullins camp. Apparently, his work at home hasn’t been ideal and, with only one run under his belt this campaign, he might not be fit enough. However, the Tramore race and straight to Cheltenham usually works for him. I will be shocked if he is out of the top four.
His stablemate Tornado Flyer is very exciting over this trip. As the King George winner, he would be excellent to see him complete the double. I’m very keen on his jockey Danny Mullins as a contender for Champion Jockey at the meeting, obviously with fierce competition from colleague Paul Townsend. Tornado Flyer does have a few weaknesses. Occasionally, he puts in scrappy jumps early on and he is yet to try this trip. There aren’t many suggestions based on his pedigree that he will stay this far, being a relation of Hurricane Fly. He seems a relatively trip-less horse as he has raced against Chacun Pour Soi over two miles and a furlong. He seems like a horse who always tries his best and one of a few who actually want rain.
Henry De Bromhead has a strong hand in this once again with 2021 first and second Minella Indo and A Plus Tard. There is a critical factor vouching for A Plus Tard’s chances: Robbie Power rode Minella Indo last time out when Racheal Blackmore didn’t have a ride in the race. It seems as though Rachael is remaining loyal to Cheveley Park-owned A Plus Tard. For me, he has been the most consistent of all entrants this season. He put the English horses in their place at Haydock and he wasn’t dreadful in behind Galvin, only beaten a short head. I have a niggly doubt about his stamina against the formidable Cheltenham Hill. Obviously, he hacked up in the novices’ handicap chase in 2019 but this is six and a half furlongs further. Playing devil’s advocate, last year, was he even closing down on Minella Indo at the line or was the winner just idling?
Minella Indo hasn’t had the stamina test of the Gold Cup yet this season. He started out in a three-mile point to point and never won a bumper. His first win over hurdles came when he broke my heart, beating Commander Of Fleet in the Ballymore, a three mile race with the Cheltenham Hill helping him massively. He didn’t have the finishing speed of Champ in the RSA. In the Gold Cup, his ears were pricked after the last, which suggests he has more in the tank. Jack Kennedy had to change his hands as the crowd appeared on his right and the horse lost concentration. If he had put his head down and battled like A Plus Tard was, the winning margin would’ve been larger than one and a quarter lengths. However, he hasn’t been the same horse since that win – well-beaten by Frodon, pulled up in the King George and beaten by Conflated, who, on all known form, was not entitled to finish ahead of him. Minella Indo’s form wasn’t sensational before the Gold Cup last year; we can expect him to be finely tuned for this important day, even though the De Bromhead yard has been quiet in comparison to last season’s heroics.
Conflated is one of the new challengers within this division. I expect Davy Russell to pick his stablemate Galvin and Jack Kennedy, who rode Minella Indo to victory last year, to accompany Conflated, who I find fascinating. He had been down the field in graded company as a novice hurdler and he managed to win a grade three in an unspectacular novice chase campaign. His prep for this season was a run on the flat! He unseated in the Kerry National and then followed in Eklat De Rire in October. He won a Grade B handicap chase under a conditional jockey in December and then, somehow, managed to win the Irish Gold Cup against a great field of runners. The Gold Cup will show whether he was the beneficiary of a good ride or a lively contender for these kind of races in the future.
So, after all that, onto my selection!
I have been keen on PROTEKTORAT since the Many Clouds Chase and, especially, after he was announced as an entry on 5th January. Pricewise’s suggestion has sliced his price massively. He has been a model of consistency for the Skelton team and his only bad run within the last two years was in the 2020 Coral Cup when he finished tenth. He faultlessly began his novice chasing campaign at Carlisle and Cheltenham before his form slightly tailed off at Wincanton and Kelso. A wind operation and tongue tie put him spot on for the Manifesto Novices Chase at Aintree. He was completely excellent. Since then, the form has been strong with The Shunter placing in competitive Irish handicaps afterwards; Hitman running consistently in open grade one company; Phoenix Way winning at Ascot; Eldorado Allen landing the Haldon Gold Cup and Denman Chase, and Fusil Raffles successful in the Charlie Hall.
Protektorat has raced only twice this season. The first was at Cheltenham over two miles four on the old course with good ground underfoot. Off top weight, he made a horrible error at the fifth fence and, fortunately, he remained on his feet. He did incredibly well to stay on for second. This was probably why connections chose to try him over three miles and one furlong at Aintree. He easily stayed the trip on soft ground and I think the fast pace of a Gold Cup will help him to settle. If they don’t go particularly quick, I think he will still have a good change of gear for the closing stages. I’m not too concerned about him staying as he finished so well at Aintree. He is versatile in terms of the ground and his dam won on heavy over two miles five in France. His sire Saint De Saints has had two runners in the Gold Cup before – the admirably consistent Djackadam between 2015 and 2018 and Lyreen Legend in 2014.
The way I have approached my analysis of the race shows that there is no superstar within this division. My model of the six races reflects the competitive but unclear nature of the Irish form. As a result, I have been drawn to Protektorat as an exciting, unknown quantity. He will be fresh and well ready for his attempt to seize the jewel in the Cheltenham Festival’s crown.
Expected Top Four
2nd A Plus Tard
3rd Al Boum Photo
4th Minella Indo