The Cheltenham Gold Cup. Twenty-two fences, spread over 3 miles and 2½ furlongs of one of the toughest racecourses around. National Hunt racing’s Blue Riband event has been won by some of the most famous names in the history of the sport; the likes of Desert Orchid, Arkle, Best Mate and more recently, Kauto Star. But whose name will be etched into racing history in 2012? Will Long Run defend his crown? Could Kauto Star re-write the record books again, by regaining the title for a second time? Or will it be a completely new name added to the list of Cheltenham legends?

We’ll begin to try and answer the question by looking at previous Gold Cup winners to see if any patterns or trends emerge.

One of the more obvious trends is that most Cheltenham Gold Cup winners are classy horses. All of the last ten winners had won a Grade One race in their career prior to victory at the Festival, and nine of the last ten had won a Grade One that same season. The exception to this was Imperial Commander, who was controversially beaten by a nose in the Grade One Lancashire Chase at Haydock, despite many feeling that the horse had actually beaten Kauto Star.

Nine of the last ten winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup had finished in the front two on their last outing before the Festival showpiece, while twelve of the last fourteen had previously been at least placed in a Cheltenham Festival race. This tells us that the 2012 Gold Cup winner will likely be a horse coming into the race in good form, with a history of performing well at the famously testing Gloucestershire racecourse.

By applying these trends to the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup field, we can already reduce it to just three contenders. You will probably not be surprised to find that two of them are Long Run (last year’s winner) and Kauto Star (winner in 2007 and 2009), while the third is Grands Crus, the highly rated Novice Chaser who last year finished second to Big Buck’s in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.

Although connections of Grands Crus have always said they will leave it as late as possible to decide whether their horse will run in the Gold Cup or the RSA Chase, for which he also holds an entry, there have been a few hints in recent days that horse is probably more likely to go for the RSA Chase. Owner Roger Stanley said a week ago, “The Gold Cup is probably a bit difficult when you’ve only had three chases but we’re going to leave it late and decide.”

With that in mind, it’s hard to justify an antepost bet on Grands Crus – despite the appealing Each-Way odds of 11.00 (Stan James, William Hill & Paddy Power) – and fans of his should probably wait until the day before striking a bet.

So, Kauto Star or Long Run?

Two Cheltenham Gold Cup trends that have been considered untouchable until recently concern age and the record of horses previously beaten in the race. Horses aged between seven and nine are usually the way forward when trying to find a Gold Cup winner (sixteen of the last eighteen winners fit this trend), while 70 horses since 1994 have contested the Gold Cup and failed to win before trying again, with just two winning (and one of these was See More Business, who only failed originally because he was carried out).

But in recent years, these two strong trends have been blown out of the water by two exceptionally talented trend busting horses in Long Run and Kauto Star. In taking the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup, Long Run became the first six year old horse to win since Mill House in 1963 and in winning the race in 2009, Kauto Star became the first horse in the history of the Cheltenham Festival to regain the Gold Cup after having lost the crown.

It is a fact that only five horses aged ten or older have won in the past thirty years (and all were aged ten) while the last twelve year old to win was What A Myth back in 1969. Twelve year old Kauto Star has a lot going against him based on this, but he has torn up the rule book before and appears to be back to his very best, so why not again in 2012? Who is to say that yet more trends couldn’t be broken?

As much as I would love it to happen, as a fan of horse racing in general and of Kauto Star himself, it’s really tough to argue with the fact that just one twelve year old has won the Gold Cup in sixty years. But when you look at how this National Hunt season has unfolded so far, you see a reigning Gold Cup winner who is constantly requiring remedial schooling over fences, who was not particularly impressive in beating stablemate Burton Port last time out – despite Burton Port having been off the track since November 2010 – and who has already lost twice to his market rival, including losing his King George crown, a race that usually provides us with a big clue as to who will win the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

It’s a really tough call and I think that the best way to solve the problem, is to look at the betting without the two market leaders. At present, only Betfair and Paddy Power are offering a “Gold Cup Without Long Run and Kauto Star” market, but it’s definitely worth a look all the same.

In this market, What A Friend (11.00, Paddy Power) looks to be tremendous value. A winner of two Grade One races in his career, including the 2009 Lexus Chase (which serves as a reasonable Gold Cup trial) when aged just six, the horse finished eleven lengths behind Long Run in the 2011 Gold Cup and was a nose away from denying Kauto Star a place. It may be almost two years since he last actually won a race, but remember, with this market it might be possible for him to finish only third and land us a winning bet; on official ratings, he’s currently the third best horse in the 2012 Gold Cup field…

Don’t worry too much about his two third place finishes from just two runs this season. Trainer Paul Nicholls (who knows a thing or two about training Gold Cup winners, with Kauto Star and Denman among his stable stars) has said that What A Friend’s target is the Cheltenham Festival for the Gold Cup, followed by Punchestown’s Guinness Gold Cup in April, so I’d be more concerned had he landed his last race – the Denman Chase at Newbury in which he finished behind Long Run and Burton Port – as I’d say he’s probably peaked too soon. The horse looks very much on target, for me.

Betting aside, the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup looks to be a truly fascinating contest and I for one cannot wait until 15:20 on Friday March 16th!

Advice:

The Cheltenham Gold Cup (Betting without Long Run and Kauto Star)
Friday 16th March 2012, 15:20

What A Friend @ 11.00 (Paddy Power)

Here are the market leaders for the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup, courtesy of Paddy Power:

Long Run – 3.25
Kauto Star – 4.50
Burton Port – 9.00
Grands Crus – 11.00
Synchronised – 13.00
Midnight Chase – 15.00
Quel Esprit – 15.00
Weird Al – 17.00
What A Friend – 21.00
Bar – 33.00