Don Poli can rise to Cheltenham’s Gold Cup challenge

Davy Russell’s relaxed horsemanship may go long way towards ending Willie Mullins wait

 Bryan Cooper guides Don Poli, left, over the last to win The Lexus Steeplechase at Leopardstown in  December. Cooper has sided with Don Cossack today.  Photo: by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Bryan Cooper guides Don Poli, left, over the last to win The Lexus Steeplechase at Leopardstown in December. Cooper has sided with Don Cossack today. Photo: by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

 

It would be ironic if Don Poli – the horse famously not particularly bothered – proves the one to finally give Willie Mullins the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup crown he so desperately covets, an irony the champion trainer can be guaranteed to relish.

In a festival highlight containing any number of angles it is ultimately Mullins’ Gold Cup quest which continues to prove the most enthralling.

On five occasions jump racing’s dominant figure has endured the frustration of finishing runner-up in the race that matters most, including the last three years in a row.

The last two, Djakadam and On His Own, try again and bookmakers reckon Djakadam is best placed to end what might not yet justify being called a ‘hoodoo’ but which edges ever closer to such status the longer Mullins fails to win steeplechasing’s ‘blue-riband’.

Powerful owners

Don CossackGordon Elliott

Cooper is regularly faced with such marginal calls but this one is the most defining of his career and he admits he will be kicking himself for six months if he has got it wrong. Plenty more senior colleagues who’ve never hit the Gold Cup bullseye might tell Cooper that’s a conservative estimate.

Stepping in for the Don Poli ride is Davy Russell whose only previous spin on the horse came just ten days before he was replaced by Cooper as Gigginstown’s No 1. Ten weeks after that he conjured up an unlikely Gold Cup success on Lord Windermere.

So in a race that sees the Cue Card team in line for a million pounds bonus, every trainer yearning to win a first Gold Cup, and Cooper’s judgement in particular likely to be examined in microscopic detail, Russell might just cut the most relaxed figure of all.

The logic behind Cooper’s call is that Don Cossack will be best suited by the quicker ground conditions. He is also officially top-rated and plenty believe Don Cossack would have ultimately emerged best in the King George only for falling at the second last.

There’s also a feeling that a relatively small Gold Cup field mitigates against a suspicion he doesn’t appreciate being crowded. It is a fact rather than suspicion though that in two previous Cheltenham starts Don Cossack hasn’t shown his best, falling in the RSA, and managing only third in last year’s Ryanair.

In contrast, Cue Card has won half of his eight starts at the track and the big home hope has looked a transformed character on the back of a summer wind operation and Paddy Brennan taking over on his back.

Djakadam is also a proven Cheltenham operator having finished a gallant runner-up to Coneygree last year. He appeared to have stepped up again with a hugely impressive John Durkan victory in December which made his subsequent Cheltenham fall in January all the more disappointing.

However recent reports of Djakadam’s work have been impressive, to the extent you suspect Vautour’s Ryanair switch was ultimately a straight-forward decision.

Famously laid-back

Famously laid-back, he has plenty to find with his rivals on official figures. But ratings only quantify what a horse shows and Don Poli has surely not come close yet to showing the true range of his talents.

What we do know is that he is two from two at the festival, both times on good ground which hardly backs up dismissing him as some slow grinder. Significantly the biggest winning margins of his career have come at the festival when Mullins had him wound up tight.

The trainer has always insisted Don Poli takes knowing which makes Cooper’s decision no plus. But Russell is renowned as a supreme horseman, with Lord Windermere’s victory here a classic example of his quiet persuasion.

“I hope he comes to the second last having not got outpaced and is still in touch. You would think then he’ll have a say in the finish because he should find plenty stamina,” the jockey said.

It’s that horsemanship that could yet wind up making Russell and Don Poli a perfect fit. Just as Mullins would be a perfect fit in the Gold Cup winners spot.

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