Pipe hopeful goes for Gold
Most National Hunt fans will see this week's three-day Cheltenham Open Meeting as the real curtain raiser to the new jumps season as we get a chance to see some old favourites in action at Prestbury Park - the home of National Hunt racing.
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Still referred to as the Mackeson by many of the older generation the meetings feature contest is the Paddy Power Gold Cup on the Saturday - a race I was lucky enough to win three times during my riding days (1986, 1991 & 1996).
The Pipe stable, who I had my final success for in this race onboard Challenger du Luc, have not only made this race their own in recent times, with a staggering nine wins, but it's also no secret that they do extremely well at the meeting on a whole - anything they run over the three-days should be respected.
They maintained their excellent record 12 months ago too when Timmy Murphy rode his third winner in the race when steering home Great Endeavour, and with their talented grey Grands Crus heading the ante-post betting for this year's race then it will be a brave man to say they can't further enhance their strike-rate in this valuable handicap chase.
We last saw their seven-year-old coming fourth in the RSA Chase here at the Festival last March, after being sent off the 6/5 favourite, so he does have a tiny bit to prove.
He's currently around the 5/2 mark in the betting, but should any of his main market rivals not make the race they you can expect those odds to disappear.
In his favour, however, should be the drop back in trip, as there are still a few questions to be answered about him staying 3m+ over fences, especially around Cheltenham at the highest level.
That said, he's still young so this really will be an interesting season to see if he can kick-on again up the ranks, but a bit like another classy grey I used to ride - One Man - it could be that connections are forced to run him in festival races like the Ryanair, or even the Champion Chase, in future years if he proves that the Gold Cup trip of 3m2f is just a little bit too far for him.
In his favour though he does have winning form here at Cheltenham, both over fences and hurdles, so there will be no issues surrounding the track, while he does also have a very decent record when fresh, so based on that, the stables excellent record in the race and the drop in trip then he is still very much the one to beat.
The other big draw in the race will be the popular Hunt Ball, who rose up through the ranks in amazing fashion last season - let's not forget at this time last year he was rated just 69!
He's now on a mark of 157, and after running away with the Pulteney Land Investments Novices' Handicap Chase at the Festival last March over this trip then he'll have ideal conditions once again.
Being the current second favourite with most firms then I'm sure he'll be popular with punters come the day, while with 6 of the last 10 winners coming from the first three in the betting then he'll have this strong stat on his side too.
Staying with the stats, then it might come as shock to some that champion trainer, Paul Nicholls, is still to win this prize, despite having several leading fancies over the years. In fact the Ditcheat-based handler has saddled just 6 placed horses from his last 21 runners in the contest, but he'll be hoping to put that right with the likes of Al Ferof, Cristal Bonus, Aerial and Poquelin, who are all still entered at this stage.
The other interesting trend is that we've seen just two Irish-trained winners of the race since 1960, with Tranquil Sea being the most-recent in 2009.
Yes, not many star Irish names have tried in recent years, and there doesn't look like being a strong Emerald Isle presence this year either, but all the same I still found that fascinating.
Others at the top of the market at this stage of the week are recent Old Roan Chase winner, For Non Stop, who was an impressive 23 length winner there at Aintree last month. He was also third in Jewson Novices' Chase here last March, and having finishing in the top three in all of his last seven races then he comes into the contest as one of the most consistent performers.
At just 7 years-old there should also be more to come from this Nick Williams-trained chaser and should he take his chance will come into the race as the highest-rated horse in the line-up.
The final one of interest, should he make the race, is Alan King's Walkon. We all know this horse has had its problems since his excellent hurdling campaign of 2008/09, so there will, again, be plenty of risk attached if you fancy him.
But, based on his 18 ½ length fifth in last season's RSA Chase, when he was only just behind Grands Crus off level weights, then many will feel that the fact he's now getting a stone off the Pipe runner then this horse might just win the battle of the greys, and at a decent price too.
If you like your stats and trends then I've listed a few key ones below to look out for.....
Paddy Power Gold Cup - 10 Year Trends
10/10 - Raced at Cheltenham previously
10/10 - Won over at least 2m4f (fences) previously
9/10 - Won by a UK-based stable
8/10 - Won by a horse aged 6 or 7 years-old
7/10 - Won just 2 or 3 times over fences previously
7/10 - Finished in the top 4 in their last race
7/10 - Carried 10-13 or less in weight
7/10 - Won at Cheltenham previously
6/10 - Came from the first 3 in the betting
6/10 - Favourites placed
6/10 - Won by a horse aged 7 years-old
4/10 - Won their latest race
5/10 - Won on their seasonal reappearance
4/10 - Trained by the Pipe stable
3/10 - Favourites to win
3/10 - Raced at Carlisle last time out
3/10 - Raced at Cheltenham last time out
3/10 - Ridden by jockey Timmy Murphy
1/10 - Won by an Irish-trained runner
Just 2 Irish-trained winners since 1960
Average winning SP in the last 10 runnings is 10/1
Last horse to win aged in double-figures was in 1975
Trainer Paul Nicholls has sent out just 6 placed horses (no winners) from his last 21 runners
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