It’s always interesting each year to see which horses draw closer and closer to the top favourites as the Cheltenham Gold Cup draws ever closer. Either through success in races leading up to the Festival, or through the capitulation of other contenders, certain horses always rise to the fore in the Gold Cup odds, while others slip to the wayside.
This year, one of the biggest riders has been Champ, trained by Nicky Henderson. Horse racing fans will remember with fondness the thrilling finish Champ produced in the RSA Novices’ Chase at last year’s Cheltenham Festival. With Allaho and Minella Indo battling it out for the win as they pounded up the home straight, Champ and jockey Barry Geraghty came charging through the middle to earn a dramatic last-gasp win for Henderson.
Named after the great AP McCoy, Champ showed the kind of fighting qualities that prove he is worthy of the name. Now, there are bigger prizes on the horizon, with the Gold Cup sitting tantalisingly as a real possibility for the nine-year-old.
Having once been around 14/1 for the Gold Cup, Champ’s odds have shortened significantly, and he can now be found at a price of around 5/1 for the day four showpiece, behind only defending champion Al Boum Photo in the pre-race odds. This rise in expectation is proof of Champ’s reputation in the racing community, and although he could only manage a second-place finish to Sceau Royal in the Betfair Game Spirit Chase at Newbury recently, there were plenty of positive signs ahead of lining up in the Cheltenham race card.
Of course, Geraghty will not be the man in the saddle, having retired after last year’s Festival, and so the onus will fall on another rider to try and deliver a first Gold Cup win for Henderson since Bobs Worth in 2013. It was talented jockey Nico de Boinville who took the reins for the Game Spirit Chase, and despite finishing second, Geraghty liked what he saw from the pair.
“It was interesting watching him run at Newbury with Nico de Boinville on his back on Sunday,” Geraghty commented. “He was brilliant, I thought. I think he’s the biggest threat to Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup. It’s very hard to put anything else in front of him and Al Boum Photo is there as defending champion. Champ’s run at Newbury would be a better level of form than Al Boum Photo has going into the race.
“I’d be siding with Champ. If he can put it all together again at Cheltenham like he did on Sunday then Al Boum Photo will need to bring his A-game.”
Those are confident words from Geraghty, but then few will know this horse as well as he, and it’s clear that Henderson is backing Champ to the hilt to steal Al Boum Photo’s thunder come March 19th.
Of course, last year’s winner is just one of the challengers whom Champ will have to contend with in the Gold Cup. Much can be said for the chances of A Plus Tard, who stands at similar odds as Champ to win the race. Trained by Henry de Bromhead and usually ridden by Rachel Blackmore, he’ll provide stiff competition for the top runners.
In many ways, Champ’s surge to shorter odds for the Gold Cup mirrors his victory in last year’s RSA. While other horses have taken many of the headlines in the build-up to the race, Henderson and his horse have quickly and quietly stridden into contention. The question is, can anyone stop Champ from charging through the middle again, this time for Gold Cup glory?