Cheltenham: Bobs Worth can join greats
Most sports are nothing without their past and this, which has the best-documented history of any, is no exception.
Fifty years ago here, the perceptions of what a top-class steeplechaser actually was began to change as a bay gelding from Ireland powered almost without concern up the famous hill to the finishing line, putting paid to any pretensions to true greatness held by the local hero, Mill House.
That horse was, of course, Arkle, winning the first of his three Gold Cups. He remains the beau ideal, the standard by which jumpers are measured, a competitor who changed the rules of the game (literally; he was so much better than the rest that a new system of handicapping had to be introduced).
The phrase "best since" has been invoked along the way, most recently for Kauto Star and Denman, but never "as good as".
Today, another plain-coloured bay gelding will be trying to take his place in the pantheon as winner of more than one edition of jump racing's crown, but there the comparison stops.
Bobs Worth – bred in Fermanagh by Lois Eadie – is entirely worthy and can be valued at slightly more than a shilling – he cost £20,000 and his earnings now amount to more than £650,000 – but he is not a horse to make the neutral's pulse beat much faster. Nor, in truth, are any of his 13 rivals. At least not yet.
With last year's hero and the pair who have taken this season's best domestic trials – Silviniaco Conti and Triolo D'Alene, winners respectively of the King George VI Chase at Kempton and Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury – among the challengers for the £550,000 purse, it would be churlish to rate the field substandard. But the final championship race of the week seems, on the face of it, to be lacking a frisson.
We cannot expect extraordinary achievement every year and there is a great deal to be said for the admirable quality of honest endeavour. Bobs Worth is an endearing character, unassuming and unflashy at home. As chasers go he is small, but his size belies his talent.
And his record is difficult to fault. He has won 10 of his 14 races and has not been beaten in five outings at Cheltenham nor in his three at the Festival, where he has worked his way doggedly up the ranks: novice hurdler, novice chaser, then senior champion.
The unique challenge posed by this undulating arena is not to every horse's taste, but Bobs Worth, from the stable of the meeting's leading trainer Nicky Henderson, seems to relish it.
Because of his spare physique he tends to be sparingly campaigned; he has run only twice this season, bouncing back from an uncharacteristically flat effort behind Cue Card, yesterday's Ryanair Chase winner Dynaste and Silviniaco Conti at Haydock to beat one of Ireland's most consistent performers, First Lieutenant, at Leopardstown in late December.
Silviniaco Conti came into last year's Gold Cup on a roll and was going ominously easily in third place when he landed too steeply at the third-last fence and fell for the first and only time in his life.
This season, he proved he belonged at the top table with his exhilarating defeat of Cue Card on Boxing Day, and Paul Nicholls knows what it takes to win a Gold Cup, having done so with See More Business, Kauto Star twice, and Denman.
The Irish have not exported the meeting's showpiece for eight years. Their attack today is four-pronged, headed by Last Instalment and First Lieutenant.
Last Instalment arguably has the most persuasive credentials, but his participation is not certain and will not be confirmed until this morning.
The nine-year-old is talented and progressive but also has a history of tendon problems and the ground may be deemed insufficiently cushioning to risk his glass forelegs.
He missed the whole of last season but on his latest outing, he put to the sword a selection of proven high-class performers, including First Lieutenant, in last month's Irish Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown.
If he needs soft underfoot conditions, the opposite is true for First Lieutenant. The gelding is one of this generation's nearly horses, placed 11 times at Grade One level, including at the last two Festivals. This is his first try at as far as three and a quarter miles, but he will have the quicker springboard he relishes to help him get home.
Every race needs a gamble, supplied here by Bobs Worth's stablemate Triolo D'Alene, who was backed from as long as 25-1 two weeks ago even before the booking of Tony McCoy in the saddle. He is one of the youngest in the field and is progressive but, like On His Own and Teaforthree, has had the Grand National as his prime target this season.
Should Silviniaco Conti (3.20), the mount of Noel Fehily, prevail he will take Nicholls level with Tom Dreaper, who scored with Prince Regent before Arkle and Fort Leney afterwards, as the race's most successful trainer.
The seven-times champion rates the French-bred chestnut highly. "See More Business won a King George, so did Kauto Star," he said. "This one has that same sort of class." As good as? That'll do.