Cheltenham Gold Cup 2018 Ante-Post Preview: Minella Rocco can go one better
By Timeform, Friday 24 March 2017
"...Jonjo O'Neill has opted to prioritise a second try at the Gold Cup rather than take advantage of a potentially lenient handicap mark in the Grand National."
A look back through the past winners shows that if you want to win a second Gold Cup, win your first one at the age of seven. The last four horses to win the race more than once - Arkle, L’Escargot, Best Mate and Kauto Star - all won their first Gold Cups at that age before winning it again (twice more in the case of Arkle and Best Mate, while Kauto Star won his second Gold Cup two years after his first). That could be taken as a positive for the latest winner, seven-year-old Sizing John, who is disputing favouritism for the 2018 race in most lists, though of course not every Gold Cup winner of that age has been successful a second time.
The winner of his last three starts since tackling longer trips, Sizing John would face potentially tougher opposition in any repeat bid if the other horse at the head of the betting, Thistlecrack, makes a full recovery from the setback which prevented him taking his chance as a novice this March. His beating of stable-companion Cue Card in the King George VI Chase was arguably the best chasing performance of the season over three miles, while his subsequent narrow defeat to Many Clouds at Cheltenham when last seen was another top-class effort.
However, if you’re prepared to take a chance on a currently side-lined contender, the 12/1 on offer in places about Douvan makes more appeal than the much shorter odds about Thistlecrack. Besides needing to recover from his pelvic injury, there is, of course, the small matter of Douvan never having run at much beyond two miles. But he’ll stay further given the opportunity, and Sizing John’s victory must have given Willie Mullins plenty of food for thought – after all, Douvan’s match score with Sizing John stands at 7-0, with the future Gold Cup winner once again unable to lay a glove on Douvan when they last met at Leopardstown in December.
Douvan’s stable-companion Yorkhill is Willie Mullins’ best chance of winning a first Gold Cup according to most lists. Still a novice, he needs to improve a little further to be a leading contender, but one defeat in eleven starts and an unbeaten chasing record is a firm platform to build on. A winner of the Neptune over hurdles and the JLT at the latest Festival, Yorkhill hasn’t raced beyond twenty-one furlongs to date, but by Presenting (sire of Gold Cup winners Denman and War of Attrition), he looks sure to stay further and could be destined for the top, though is priced accordingly.
The other novice prominent in the betting is Might Bite whose stamina is already proven and whose form already puts him on the verge of Gold Cup class. Those are the positives, though his supporters have already seen him throw away certain victory with a last-fence fall at Kempton and very nearly squander another golden opportunity when hanging badly right on the run-in in the RSA Chase (beating stable-companion Whisper) at Cheltenham, so he’s not an investment for the faint-hearted. Fellow novice (unbeaten in three starts over fences) American has plenty of potential but the downside with him is his need for soft ground (missed the Festival this year for that very reason) which limits his appeal where the Gold Cup is concerned.
Former Festival winner Empire of Dirt is the shortest-priced Gigginstown/Gordon Elliott chaser in the Gold Cup betting at present, his claims largely resting on his close second to Sizing John in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. He found things happening too quickly when going for the Ryanair instead, and, returning to the theme of age (he’ll be eleven next year), he may have missed the boat if aimed at the Gold Cup next time round – no horse older than nine has won this century and none over the age of ten has won since the ‘sixties.
Djakadam, fourth in the latest Gold Cup after twice finishing runner-up, would seem unlikely to try again according to Willie Mullins, but placed horses Minella Rocco and Native River – another couple of seven-year-olds – definitely deserve another crack. It’s not hard to imagine Native River turning in another solid effort in the race again, though for the second year running at the Festival he was outpointed by Minella Rocco who had beaten him just over a length into second in the National Hunt Chase twelve months earlier. There was only a short head in it this time, Minella Rocco staying on strongly in first-time cheekpieces and taking second in the dying strides, less than three lengths behind Sizing John.
It’s interesting that Minella Rocco’s trainer Jonjo O’Neill has opted to prioritise a second try at the Gold Cup in the longer term rather than seek to take advantage of a potentially lenient handicap mark nearer to hand in the Grand National. A smoother preparation – Minella Rocco had failed to complete in his two previous starts but jumped much better at Cheltenham – and, ideally, conditions which place the emphasis a bit more on stamina, would make Minella Rocco an attractive proposition at odds of 16/1.
Back Minella Rocco at 16/1 in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.