Cheltenham: Measuring the Gold Cup

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Conservative or aggressive? In this game, the question looms with every horse, every race, every decision. It’s always there. Trainer Mark Bradstock and his team faced that choice with novice Coneygree. Be conservative and cast a long shadow in the RSA Novice Chase at Cheltenham. Be aggressive and meld into the shadow of the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Be conservative and you have no detractors. Be aggressive and you pin yourself to the dartboard of criticism – sharp knives, strong arms.

A novice winning the Gold Cup, it hadn’t been done since Captain Christy in 1974. The Bradstocks decided to go for the Gold. Coneygree made the decision look simple, taking the lead in mid-air at the first and never letting go over 22 fences, through three miles and two and a half furlongs. The novice jumped with precision, galloped with resolution and won with emotion. Being a novice could have mattered if Coneygree actually raced with his more experienced rivals. Instead, he raced on his own, like a kid let out of school on a Friday afternoon.

If there were ever a time to be aggressive, this was the time. Without an icon like Best Mate or Kauto Star or Denman, the Gold Cup attracted the best there is, but not the best there ever was. Coneygree, with just three starts over fences, scoffed at the notion that he was simply a novice, putting the rest of the field on the ropes early and jabbing them to the ground. In National Hunt racing, flaws are exposed quickly, especially by an accurate frontrunner. A good frontrunner never looks like he’s going that fast; it’s his followers, straggling like hounds over a stonewall, who become the needle on the gauge. Watching Coneygree, he was lobbing along. Watching the likes of favorite Silviniaco Conti, Hennessy winner Many Clouds, 2014 Gold Cup winner Lord Windermere and 12 others scramble showed the true brilliance of Coneygree.

Conservative or aggressive? With the race still in the balance, Coneygree rolled to the second-to-last and could have gone short or stretched and gone long. It was never a choice for him, ears back, then flicking, then pricking, he stepped and launched, just like he had been trained to do. Eadweard Muybridge never depicted motion better.

After 21 perfect leaps, a multiple choice test which only offered A’s, Coneygree honed in on the last fence, needing nothing but one more. With Djakadam and Road To Riches yapping behind him, Coneygree approached and the options fell off the ledge, the long spot disappeared, then the medium spot flittered away. Coneygree needed to adjust, but not depress. With over 3 miles already in the oven, he couldn’t afford to lose momentum, couldn’t afford a mistake. Coneygree pricked his ears and kept them pricked, jockey Nico de Boinville raised his shoulders slightly, the cue was accepted, the stride decided. Coneygree shifted his center of balance slightly, rocking his hind legs underneath him, his hind hooves touched the takeoff board but still his bascule was perfect, rolling like a wave over a jetty, belly brushing the birch like a blanket over a branch, landing and propelling. Sticking to the task, grinding it out up the hill, Coneygree churned as De Boinville urged him right-handed. He wasn’t going any faster but he certainly wasn’t going any slower. Djakadam and Road To Riches stalled, the exacting pace finally taking its toll.

Speed controls a Gold Cup. Stamina wins it.

De Boinville stood up in his irons and punched the air.

Coneygree pulled up at the top of the hill, jockeys congratulated the unheralded De Boinville, the horses turned and began the long walk along the outside rail, the hill finally descending, rather than ascending. The crowd roared.

From high up and way down the track, you could see a red dot – the silks of the Max Partnership – bobbing through the sea of fans crammed between the grandstand and the racetrack, stretching the length of the course. The red dot moved slowly, parallel, then perpendicularly through the ocean of waving hats and hands. De Boinville raised his right fist, punching the air. Aggressive, not conservative.