Why are there so few repeat Gold Cup winners?

Al Boum up against it in bid to produce another picture-perfect moment, writes Darren Norris.

Why are there so few repeat Gold Cup winners?

Al Boum up against it in bid to produce another picture-perfect moment, writes Darren Norris.

WHAT have Don Cossack, Long Run, Imperial Commander, Denman, Dawn Run, and Burrough Hill Lad all got in common? If you answered they were all seriously impressive winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup you’d be right. But they, like so many other Gold Cup winners, have something else in common too: None of them won the festival blue riband a second time.

Why are there so few repeat Gold Cup winners? Bad luck is part of the explanation. Don Cossack suffered a career-ending injury shortly after winning the 2016 renewal, 2010 hero Imperial Commander burst a blood vessel when defending his crown, Dawn Run was fatally injured after falling in the French Champion Hurdle three months after her famous 1986 Cheltenham triumph while 1984 winner Burrough Hill Lad was injured shortly before his title defence.

When he got the better of ageing warriors Denman and Kauto Star in the 2011 Gold Cup, Long Run looked capable of defying the odds and winning the great race again. After all, as a six-year-old, he was the youngest winner of the race since Mill House in 1963. However, while he went on to win a second King George; he was a one-paced third in both the 2012 and 2013 Gold Cups. The effort required to prevail in 2011 had clearly left a lasting mark.

It was the same with Denman. When he demolished Kauto Star in the 2008 Gold Cup he looked destined to dominate the staying division for years. But there was a price to be paid for such a relentless effort and a heart issue most probably caused by those exertions meant he was a shadow of himself when second to his stablemate in 2009. Denman would go to win a second Hennessy Gold Cup later that year and finish second in two more Cheltenham Gold Cups but he would never again be the force of nature he was in 2008.

That 2009 Gold Cup produced a bit of history as Kauto Star became the first horse in history to regain the crown. The only other horse to win the race more than once this century was Best Mate, who completed a famous hat-trick when obliging for the third year in succession in 2004.

He was the first treble hero since the immortal Arkle completed his hat-trick in 1966, though L’Escargot did win it twice in the interim, in 1970 and 1971.

Further back, Cottage Rake won it for Vincent O’Brien in 1948, 1949, and 1950, Golden Miller delivered five years in a row (1932-1936), while 1929 victor Easter Hero was the first to win it more than once when he followed up in 1930.

History shows repeat successes can be achieved but it also illustrates that only the truly great have the raw talent and iron will required to follow up.

Kauto Star, for instance, was fast enough to twice win the Tingle Creek but had the stamina to win the Gold Cup twice and the King George a record five times.

L’Escargot denied Red Rum a third successive Grand National when beating the Aintree legend by 15 lengths in 1975 while Arkle was just Arkle, incomparable to anything that came before or after.

All this is relevant when it comes to assessing Al Boum Photo’s credentials to join this most select of clubs. The eight-year-old was a decisive winner of last year’s Gold Cup and, with Willie Mullins a confirmed creature of habit, Al Boum Photo returns to defend his crown on the back of an identical preparation to last year: A single, winning run at Tramore on New Year’s Day. And with the ground likely to be in his favour he deserves to be at the head of the market. But is he a Kauto Star, a Best Mate or an L’Escargot? That’s the key question.

After all, he was only going to finish a distant third to Presenting Percy when falling at the last in the 2018 RSA Chase and, having won Cheltenham’s biggest prize last season, he was then beaten by stablemate Kemboy in the Punchestown Gold Cup on his final start of the season.

Against that, he has freshness on his side after Mullins opted for a Best Mate-type preparation.

Henrietta Knight was frequently accused of wrapping Best Mate in cotton wool but, in three successive years, she got her pride and joy right on the day that mattered most. That was no mean feat, as the fate of every subsequent Gold Cup winner bar Kauto Star has shown.

That said, the staying chasing division wasn’t the strongest when Best Mate ruled supreme and, come Friday, Al Boum Photo faces a host of exciting new challengers in Santini, Delta Work, and Lostintranslation.

It’s not just the weight of history that’s against him.

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