Cheltenham Gold Cup: Pandorama set to spring massive surprise in big race
The race should certainly match its billing, as a showdown between the old guard and a young pretender — but not necessarily in the way everyone expects.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup today brings together three horses who have between them won the last four runnings, and a new star in Long Run.
But their contrasting profiles are also represented, at much better odds, by two others in the field — the old rogue Tidal Bay and a rising force in Pandorama.
Most punters have long given up on Tidal Bay. But maddening as he is, the demands of this race are ideally tailored to his idiosyncrasies. He has always adored the hill here, and especially the hectic tempo of Festival races.
Pandorama provides a very wholesome contrast. He is tough, reliable and progressive, and has won all bar two of his career starts, pardonably outpaced by Mikael d'Haguenet over hurdles, when that horse was in unstoppable form, and pulled up on his first visit to these shores, at Newbury last autumn, having made an early mistake and then been hampered.
That disappointment left him at a crossroads, but he emphatically took the right turn on his only subsequent start, thrashing seasoned Grade One operators in the Lexus Chase at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting. Apart from at Newbury, his only previous start at three miles had been at the same fixture last season, when he rallied to beat the subsequent RSA Chase winner Weapon's Amnesty.
Here we have a staying chaser in the classic Gold Cup mould, big-hearted and bold, who has only just started out in his optimal discipline.
True, he missed out on valuable experience when a setback ruled him out of Ireland's Hennessy Gold Cup last month — won in his absence by Kempes.
If it turns really soft, Pandorama would become an outstanding bet at 12-1.
It would be fantastic to see Kauto Star win his third Gold Cup, and excuses have been found for his submission at Kempton last time. But it is contentious to claim that he only needs to be forgiven one disappointing run.
The alternative view, that he has now looked past his peak three times running, would seem readily sustained by the passing of the years.
His stablemate Denman is surely approaching the brow of the hill, despite running with characteristic honesty under a huge weight on his only start of the season. He has since undergone a wind operation, and at 11 it is hard to picture him producing the career best he may yet need today.
That is thanks to the presence of Long Run, who confirmed himself top-class when deposing Kauto Star at Kempton. But while other explanations have been quite plausibly proposed, defeat in both previous visits implies that he is less effective on this track. His gifted amateur partner Sam Waley-Cohen may find that the horse requires too much organising at his fences, for too long, to have enough left for the hill.
And what of the one who sets the gold standard? Imperial Commander's absence since November presents no problem to a horse with such a good record fresh. But his stable is not in especially convincing form.
The opposite is true of Pandorama, who can crown an incredible, indelible week for the Irish.