Perversely, Sizing John’s success in the Irish Gold Cup, last Sunday at Leopardstown, has been used as a rod to beat Douvan’s connections, as their horse, a vastly superior animal to Sizing John over two miles, remains on course for the Champion Chase, rather than taking the same route as his old foe, who has now entered the reckoning for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
But, it’s so much easier to take the risk of stepping into the unknown when you are consistently coming out on the wrong side of a battle.
And that’s what has happened with Sizing John, who was, once again, no match for Douvan when they met over two miles and a furlong in December.
Thereafter the decision was made to swerve future clashes with the unbeaten chaser by moving up in trip.
While Sizing John’s second try at two and a half miles, in the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles, was successful, it wasn’t entirely satisfactory as a showcase of his stamina, as there was a small field, and the final fence was omitted.
However, jockey Robbie Power was convinced all the horse does is stay, and so, it seems, was the horse’s trainer, Jessica Harrington, and owners Alan and Ann Potts.
An extra half-mile for the Irish Gold Cup was another leap in the dark but there wasn’t a lot to lose, and the decision paid off in spades when he landed the spoils in Sunday’s feature, over three miles plus.
The race wasn’t run at a breakneck, end-to-end gallop, and therefore wasn’t a thorough test of the horse’s stamina, but neither had the winner come to the end of his tether when he hit the line three parts of a length ahead of Empire Of Dirt.
In just three runs this season he has moved up almost a mile and, apparently, relished it. So, why not another quarter of a mile? No reason, really. Should he come up short at Cheltenham, I would suggest it will be ability and not stamina which is the primary reason.
He travels very well, is a terrific jumper, and that should allow him hold his position through much of the race at Cheltenham.
Of those now ahead of Sizing John in the ante-post book for the Gold Cup, Thistlecrack has the star potential which most of the entries lack, but he is just a novice, and we were served a reminder of that when he was narrowly defeated by the ill-fated Many Clouds, in the Cotswold Chase.
Hennessy and Welsh National winner Native River didn’t have to achieve much to win the three-runner Denman Chase last weekend.
He certainly has the stamina, but must prove he has the class to win a Gold Cup.
Had Djakadam turned up at Leopardstown last Sunday, we could have learned more, as he has been to the Cheltenham’s blue riband twice and come up a little shy.
He will go there fresh this time and as this is, potentially, a weaker race than last year, victory is not beyond the bounds of possibility. However, his record beyond three miles is not going to put fear in any of his rivals, nor should it deter supporters of other runners.
Cue Card must bounce back from a sub-par effort in the King George. Currently an 8-1 chance, he could be three times those odds if he doesn’t show signs of his best form in this weekend’s Ascot Chase.
Sure, the Gold Cup is another huge step up for Sizing John, but he is just a seven-year-old, and utterly unexposed over staying trips. With question marks surrounding so many of the other runners, if it is stamina which concerns you most regarding his chance, I would suggest backing him at 14-1 is a risk worth taking.
The weather may have been bitterly cold but seeing Sizing John land the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Sunday was a sight to warm the heart.
After all, this is a horse who appeared destined to live forever in the shadow of Douvan, a seemingly invincible foe who has swathed him away with a minimum of fuss on all seven occasions in which they met.
And, given the events of last weekend, it’s remarkable to think that when Sizing John weakened tamely two out to finish third when stepped up in distance to 2m3f at Aintree last April the perception was a trip was beyond him. How wrong we were.
Fast forward to Sunday and just over three miles on soft ground was no problem. While initially reluctant to commit Sizing John to running in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, trainer Jessica Harrington has since confirmed that the blue riband, rather than the Ryanair Chase, will be the seven-year-old’s festival target.
He certainly deserves a crack at the big one but odds of between 10/1 and 14/1 accurately reflect his prospects come St Patrick’s Day.
There are five horses trading at shorter odds and all five look more viable winners.
Thistlecrack may have lost his aura of invincibility when beaten by a head by the sadly ill-fated Many Clouds last month but, as the market suggests, he remains the most likely winner.
Some have suggested that the gruelling nature of that reversal on soft ground might have left a mark on the King George winner but I’m more inclined to take the view that having to battle for the first time in his chasing career will make a man of him.
Indeed, given how relentless a galloper Many Clouds was and taking into account how lacklustre Cue Card was in the King George, there’s an argument that Thistlecrack’s display in defeat in the Cotswold Chase was actually better than his performance at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day. He’ll certainly have learned plenty.
The likely ground come Gold Cup day should also be far more to his liking and it’ll take a pretty exceptional display to lower his colours.
The market suggests stablemate Native River represents Thistlecrack’s biggest danger and he showed he was far more than a one-trick pony when winning the Denman Chase at Newbury on Saturday.
The seven-year-old ground his rivals into submission from the front to land the Hennessy in November before repeating the trick to win the Welsh National at Christmas.
However, it was a different story on Saturday as, in a tactical affair, Native River was ridden with far more restraint before showing a potent turn of foot to pull clear of Le Mercurey.
Next month, connections will surely revert to the tactics that served Native River so well in the Hennessy and the Welsh National but they have more options now and that can only be a good thing. And if Native River is in front at the last he’ll be mightily difficult to pass.
The Irish challenge is led by Djakadam, runner-up in 2015 and last year. That record warrants respect but the suspicion is another placed effort is the best he can hope for.
No horse older than the age of 10 has won the Gold Cup since the 12-year-old What A Myth prevailed in 1969 so the 11-year-old Cue Card is up against it. In truth, it’s hard to see it happening – last year was his big chance – but his best form certainly entitles him to be shorter than Sizing John.
And, as impressive as Sizing John was on Sunday, the Lexus Chase won by Outlander was a better race with more strength in depth than the Irish Gold Cup.
A further negative for Sizing John is the fact only two horses in history – Jodami in 1993 and Imperial Call in 1996 – have followed up Irish Gold Cup glory by landing the big one at Cheltenham the same year.
Can Sizing John defy those stats? He’s certainly on an upward curve but the suspicion is Cheltenham glory will prove beyond him this year.