6 February 2005
Cheltenham’s ultimate prize gets more interesting by the day. Best Mate may have been odds-on when he won his Arkle-equalling third Gold Cup last year, but you can get 3-1 against the four-timer in March and this afternoon, when his December conqueror Beef Or Salmon runs in Ireland’s Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown, you will see one of the reasons why. The challengers are closing on the champion.
Next Saturday Strong Flow and Celestial Gold, the last two Hennessy Gold Cup winners, take each other on at Newbury. Meanwhile, connections of brilliant King George winner Kicking King ponder their plans as last week’s Cheltenham winner Grey Abbey and King George runner-up Kingscliff opt, like Best Mate himself, to complete their preparations at home. The form figures are nearly in, time for the arguments starts now.
Best Mate’s Leopardstown defeat at the hands of Beef Or Salmon and his scrambling win in a sprint finish first time out have led to cries of decline. But it is harsh to crab him on these two runs when he is now so wholly targeted on Cheltenham in March. The evidence that exists, and the hope for his rivals, is the struggle he had to edge out Sir Rembrandt there last year. Equalling Arkle’s three successive Gold Cups was a huge performance, but at the same stage Arkle was scattering his opposition, not decimating it.
But whether Strong Flow or Celestial Gold have improved enough to challenge such an awesome Cheltenham operator as Best Mate is quite another matter. I have backed Strong Flow at decent odds on the memory of his fantastic Hennessy victory last year. But he has had a serious knee injury and will have to give a handsome beating to the improving Celestial Gold (who only carried 10st 5lb when winning his Hennessy) to make my bet look sensible.
Grey Abbot looked a great front-running ride last week at Cheltenham but it would need to be soft ground on Gold Cup day for his grinding style to break the strength and resolution of his rivals. If he were to run, it would at least ensure Best Mate the sort of end-to-end gallop which he now seems to need to draw out his strong suit of stamina.
Kicking King’s stamina is a matter of trust. He got Kempton’s flat three miles well enough but that is always a different matter from Cheltenham’s undulating three miles and a quarter. His King George success in December has earned a higher rating than anything achieved by his rivals this season and if he is aimed at the Gold Cup rather than the two and a half mile Daily Telegraph Chase he will be a real contender. The advice is to wait on trainer Tom Taaffe, who also warns of a slight malaise in his stable.
Which leaves us with Kingscliff and Beef Or Salmon. Kingscliff is the one horse in training who runs less frequently than Best Mate. The Gold Cup will be only his sixth race under rules, the King George run being his sole appearance this season. But he runs well fresh and his rider Andrew Thornton was in bullish form as he reported for duty at Towcester on Thursday. “I thought his Kempton run was tremendous,” Thornton said. “He is very handy for a huge horse and could make things lively for everybody at Cheltenham.”
It was Thornton who drove Kingscliff’s reputedly inferior stable companion, Sir Rembrandt, so close to Best Mate last March when Beef Or Salmon ran on to finish only three lengths away after making a hash of the final fence. Beef Or Salmon has had a sky-high reputation since he won his first point-to-point in Tipperary three years ago. But for all his nine wins over fences he has often seemed a bit vulnerable in his jumping, most famously when he took a hideous somersault at the third fence in Best Mate’s 2003 Gold Cup.
“It’s true he has looked a bit uncomfortable at times,” trainer Michael Hourigan said on Friday, “but that’s because he was. He has had this bad back and would be stiff when he came out of a morning and would not always let himself go on the track. But it’s been good this season and Liz Kent [the physio] and my daughter Kay have been working and working on him. When he came out today, Liz was saying that he has never been better.”
Hourigan is one of those people so infectious that it is necessary to check your enthusiasm, not to mention your wallet, after talking to him. But he’s already won almost £500,000 with Beef Or Salmon and his assessment is shared by Paul Carberry who rode him to beat Best Mate last time and will be in the saddle again this afternoon.
“I thought his jumping was fine,” Carberry said on Friday as he prepared for a day’s hunting across the gaping ditches demanded by the Ward Union in County Meath. “The ground was heavy and will be tacky again on Sunday, but good ground at Cheltenham would suit him better. He is certainly talented enough.”
Beef Or Salmon will be odds-on this afternoon and anything less than an impressive and clean-jumping victory will be a disappointment. But the most important factor of all will be how his back is when he pulls out at Hourigan’s Limerick yard on Monday morning. The Gold Cup story is likely to have a lot of twists, and possibly strains, in it yet.