Amidst all the conjecture about how fighting it out for Cheltenham Gold Cup glory can seriously damage a horse’s subsequent career, it’s hard not to suspect an old line might be apt about experts simply possessing more data than judgement.
The latest evidence put forward for the Gold Cup being so hard a test it risks leaving a permanent mark came with Galopin Des Champs’ underwhelming return to action in last Sunday’s John Durkan Chase at Punchestown.
A performance that saw the reigning ‘Blue Riband’ champion run third to Fastorslow might charitably be described as flat. Those who took 1-2 odds could be forgiven for being harsher. But for those determined to see a pattern it was all but ‘QED’ in relation to the Gold Cup and its harmful effects.
It came on the back of widely circulated pre-race stats including how only eight of the previous 20 Gold Cup winners managed to win first time out the following season.
Translating it into a near 50 per cent failure rate made it sound more authoritative and gave an impression that achieving National Hunt racing’s ultimate result reduced some very stout hearts to hollow shadows of their previous selves.
The reduction of sporting flesh and blood to statistical patterns has become increasingly fashionable in betting and analysis. No doubt trends wonks were all over the Durkan outcome. But how much of this is down to perceiving connections and patterns in random events.
The scientific term is apophenia. Translated into racing it can smack of little more than seeing what you want to see. And the game isn’t short of characters eager to be believe they’ve cracked a code that often boils down to no more than the fluctuating state of an animal’s digestion on a particular day.
Maybe there was more at play than Galopin Des Champs simply having a bad day at the office. But there is certainly more to it than writing him off because of a supposed trend in Gold Cup winners failing to subsequently spark.
For one thing, it’s only a few years since Galopin Des Champs’ old stable companion, Al Boum Photo, won the Gold Cup back-to-back. The 2016 winner Don Cossack didn’t win again simply because he never ran again. It’s a decade since Bobs Worth flopped on his comeback. But he subsequently put in a superb performance to win at Leopardstown.
The Gold Cup hardly bottomed the triple winner Best Mate. Kauto Star famously endured a gruelling defeat by Denman in 2008 only to come back and regain the crown a year later. That Denman himself chased him home that year hardly smacked of being any kind of busted flush.
Admittedly they are a trio of outstanding talents that delivered on their vast potential. There have been others that looked set to win more than one Gold Cup only for it never to happen, such as Imperial Call in 1996. The 2022 winner A Plus Tard may yet fall into such a category too.
Admittedly, that’s a hunch, similar perhaps to the one proposed by those prepared to write off Bravemansgame after a pair of defeats this season. A gallant attempt to beat Galopin Des Champs in the Gold Cup last March might well have left a mark on Bravemansgame. But bending stats to fit a fashionable theory doesn’t stack up.
It’s remarkable how quickly such theories can become racing orthodoxies. Time was when no horse beaten in the Dante could win the Derby only for Workforce to blow that to smithereens in 2010.
In jump racing it has become trendy to adopt a less is more attitude to preparing horses for Cheltenham. Galopin Des Champs’ Gold Cup on the back of just two previous starts last season was a case in point.
But a much more ambitious approach was once a different sort of trend, and certainly proved no impediment to Kauto Star.
The best chaser most of us have seen began his first Gold Cup season by winning at Aintree, following up in the Betfair Chase, successfully dropping to two miles a fortnight later in the Tingle Creek, landing the King George at Christmas, and even managed to fit in a festival warm-up at Newbury.
Focus on the Gold Cup might be on-trend but underpinning all this postulation is probably a much more mundane reality that racing fans simply get ahead of themselves when it comes to impressive winners. Just eight horses have won the Gold Cup more than once. It’s an incredibly difficult feat.
Attempts to explain an inability to follow up through supposed trends and patterns fails to factor in fortune. Even Einstein, the most famous scientific wonk of all, wasn’t above an each-way bet, famously remarking that coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.
All too often, it really is just coincidence.
Something for the Weekend
Freezing weather will dictate much of the weekend schedule. If the action gets a green light, competition for Newbury’s Coral Gold Cup will be intense. Second-season novices are always a force, and it might pay to keep it straightforward with COMPLETE UNKNOWN (2.50.) He has Grade One form, has a run under his belt, is reportedly better for a wind operation, and Paul Nicholls has a great race record.
Ballyburn and the Group One winner Helvic Dream are in a fascinating and potentially ultra-informative maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse on Saturday. With a start over hurdles already under his belt last season, and a bumper victory this season, FIREFOX (12.50) will be a tough opponent for all.