THE TIMES, 19 March 2021
Can the Gold Cup crown Cheltenham’s comeback week? It will not be easy; it never is. Up ahead are 6½ minutes, 22 fences and 3¼ miles to gallop into the record books. Quite a challenge for the 12 horses, ten men and the two Festival stars that are Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore.
Let’s start with the last pair, as victory for either would be hugely significant for our sport. Frost rides Frodon, on whom she has already won an astonishing five times round Cheltenham; her victory in the Ryanair Chase in 2019 was one of the most uplifting moments in the whole Festival story. No jockey anywhere has matched the euphoric, untutored eloquence of the interviews from the saddle she did that day and then after Frodon’s most recent and best-ever run in the King George VI at Kempton.
The snag for her and Frodon today is that they will not be allowed to set the tempo up front and dazzle the others with their jumping, which is how they have always scored on their glory days. Native River is in the field and his only chance on this drying ground is to set off and really rumble — the way he did in that epic duel with Might Bite in 2018.
That, and the fact that 3¼ miles is the longest trip Frodon has ever attempted, makes me pass him and Bryony over, but I would not want to do the same for A Plus Tard and Blackmore. They have already won the Close Brothers Chase at the 2019 Festival and were a close third in the Ryanair last year. Both those races were over 2½ miles and, as A Plus Tard’s most recent race was his first victory over three miles, there is every chance that he will be even more effective over this longer distance.
Two other things are in his favour. At seven years old, A Plus Tard is two years younger than most of his principal opponents. And he has Blackmore. While it can be irritating to stress her and Bryony’s gender — “Look, it doesn’t matter what you are, we’re jockeys, we’re winning races and it’s just a privilege to be here,” Blackmore said after Honeysuckle’s Champion Hurdle win on Tuesday — the statistics only stress the enormity of their achievements.
With 41 winners this season, Bryony is 17th on the UK jockeys list, with no other women in the top 50, and although in Ireland Rachael is only six behind Paul Townend, you have to go down 36 places to reach the next woman on the chart.
Both riders are exceptional, albeit contrasting in style. Bryony rides deep into her horse and gives a beautifully smooth flow through the steeplechasing leap; Rachael — a smaller, lighter figure — is more upright in stance but has an alpha plus in strategy alongside her degree in equine science and is much tougher than you might expect.
Forgotten among Wednesday’s laurels was that after starring on board Bob Olinger in the first race, she took three unhappy falls before then riding her fellow jockeys to sleep with a masterclass of waiting in front in the closing Champion Bumper on Sir Gerhard, bookending the day with beautifully ridden winners. Yesterday’s success on Allaho in the Ryanair Chase was another sublime display from the front.
Royale Pagaille is the only other seven-year-old in the field. His three victories this season show him on a serious upward curve but every one of his 15 career races has been on either soft or heavy ground, which it will very much not be this afternoon. Except for Black Op and Aso you can make a case for all the others and most obviously for the two market leaders, Al Boum Photo and Champ.
Having run only once since taking last year’s Gold Cup, and only twice between that and the 2019 race, Al Boum Photo has become one of the least fêted Cheltenham stars in memory. While this is unfair, as he is the most admirable of operators, he had little to spare last year and he looks a favourite worth opposing.
So too does Champ who, for all the excitement of his out-of-the-clouds victory over the course and distance in last year’s RSA Chase, does not entirely convince with either his jumping or race management. He fell on the track last January and got into quite a tangle before his wet-sail finish that March. I prefer to side with his longer-priced stable companion Santini, who was only half a length off Al Boum Photo last season and is ridden by the admirable Aidan Coleman, who rode Put The Kettle On in that terrific Champion Chase finish on Wednesday.
True, Santini’s past two efforts have been underwhelming, but he made mistakes in heavy ground last time and was run off his feet round the much sharper Kempton circuit in the King George. Santini is a bit of a lazy slugger but he will have a visor on for the first time and, with Native River putting it up to Frodon, will have the speed-sapping gallop that was lacking last year.
So, let’s have Santini as an each-way saver at 12-1 and go for A Plus Tard and Blackmore to give Henry de Bromhead that unique clean sweep of Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup in the same week. If it doesn’t work out, don’t blame me, and certainly spare De Bromhead the fate of one of his French ancestors. He went to the guillotine alongside Marie Antoinette.