Drying ground can tip the balance in Sir Des Champs favour

In-form Willie Mullins to add to his amazing tally at the 2013 festival meeting

Irish trainer Willie Mullins at Cheltenham yesterday. Photograph:  David Davies/PA

Irish trainer Willie Mullins at Cheltenham yesterday. Photograph: David Davies/PA


Lives and careers have been defined by the Cheltenham Gold Cup; millions spent and fortunes lost in pursuit of steeplechasing’s most prestigious prize. Certainly any pain Davy Russell is feeling due to a punctured lung will be amplified a hundred times more at the thought that Sir Des Champs might win the Gold Cup without him.

So with so many investing so much in a single horse race, and the hopes of a racing nation revolving around who steps in for the mount on Sir Des Champs, maybe its fate having a chuckle that his chance of winning today could also wind up revolving around something as simple as how much rain might fall on Prestbury Park.

Forecasts differ, maybe no more than five milimetres, maybe a lot more. But after a festival week kept intact by 70 acres of frost-resistant polythene, we’re back to more prosaic climatic considerations.

Ordinarily Michael O’Leary appreciates National Hunt racing’s soggy soul more than most. Apparently there’s little the Ryanair boss likes more than squelching around a wet point-to-point field. It was on one such field that his 2006 Gold Cup hero War Of Attrition first appeared. But ultimately “War” loved to hear his feet rattle off a quick surface. And the suspicion remains Sir Des Champs is the same.

On both his previous festival appearances to date, the French-bred star has revelled on a decent surface. After his Jewson success last year, Willie Mullins immediately cast his mind 12 months into the future and described Sir Des Champs as his best ever chance of landing the Gold Cup.

Absolute peak
Ever since, the master-trainer has moulded Sir Des Champs around 3.20 this afternoon. Just three starts, rounded off by a Hennessy success last month, that still managed to give an impression that only today would the Gigginstown Stud horse be at an absolute peak.

Much of that calculation though has been predicated on an assumption of decent going. And since another assumption was that Russell would be on board, the dangers of assuming anything are obvious.

Nevertheless, although Sir Des Champs handles heavy ground, the suspicion remains that his jumping can be of a different calibre when able to get his feet on something solid. And on such tiny margins can the Gold Cup be won or lost.

The Gigginstown team know that better than most. Mesmerised by War Of Attrition’s 2006 success, a not insignificant portion of the O’Leary fortune has been pumped into racing, much of it in pursuit of another Gold Cup.

Sir Des Champs hasn’t exhibited a level of form yet in his career to match that of the 2011 hero Long Run, or his stable companion, Bobs Worth, or even the comparatively unspectacular Silviniaco Conti.

But only a fool ignores the faith a master like Mullins has in him, and Gold Cup history is littered with the names of winners who struck on the way up, putting in a career peak when it mattered most.

Mullins admits dry ground will be a plus to his chances of going better than Florida Pearl and Hedgehunter, both Gold Cup runners up in the past, but added yesterday: “Sir Des Champs has done everything right since arriving at the racecourse and we think and hope he will improve again. Fingers-crossed, he should run a big race.”

Winning a second King George hasn’t dissuaded most from believing Bobs Worth is the Nicky Henderson number one and a prime candidate to give a Barry Geraghty a second blue-riband triumph.

Bobs Worth has been unseen since winning the Hennessy but Geraghty reported: “I think that’s irrelevant. He’s had no hold-ups. He worked at Kempton a couple of weeks ago and went really well, he seems in great shape and I wouldn’t swap him.”

The no-swap comment is one that applies to all the leading contenders. Plenty other stuff might be swapped in a heart-beat but not a horse with a live Gold Cup chance. Sir Des Champs has just such a chance.