JOHN Francome knows what it takes to win the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.
He says his finest hour came when he partnered Fred Winter’s Midnight Court to victory in 1978, the year jump racing’s premier contest was delayed by a month due to snow.
He also played a key role in the career of Burrough Hill Lad when Jenny Pitman became the first female trainer to saddle the Gold Cup winner in 1984 – he had partnered the great horse to Welsh National success at Chepstow the previous December.
As such, people will take note when Francome – the president of the Injured Jockeys Fund – says that the Nicky Henderson-trained Bobs Worth can join the greats on Friday and become just the fourth horse after Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate to successfully defend the Gold Cup since the war.
Only Arkle’s stablemate Flyingbolt can match Bobs Worth’s record of winning three different races at the National Hunt Festival – the 2011 Albert Bartlett Hurdle, 2012 RSA Chase and last year’s Gold Cup.
“This horse must be an absolute Christian,” said Francome.
He was speaking in Leeds when leading bookmaker William Hill opened its new broadcasting studio and reunited Francome with his old sparring partner Jim McGrath who will be part of the Channel Four Racing team next week.
“When you are a jockey, 70 per cent of the horses you ride are pulling your arms out going to the start. You struggle to get them to settle,” Francome told the Yorkshire Post.
“This horse, he’s totally different. Whatever you ask him, he keeps on doing it. He’s an out and out stayer which you need. He’s not that different to Burrough Hill Lad. Last year, there were four horses in line at the last fence but this was the one that pulled clear by seven lengths. He didn’t stop.
“Yes, he was well beaten at Haydock in the Betfair Chase, but that’s a clay track and a lot of horses have been defeated there. He’s not the first, and he won’t be the last. He won the Lexus, he stays and he’s a proper Gold Cup horse. He also gets on brilliantly with Barry Geraghty. You never see Barry in a bad position. If I owned a horse, I’d be very happy to have him riding for me. He’s a proper rider, he’s in sync with his horse.”
Significantly, Francome believes that one of the biggest threats to Bobs Worth could come from his stablemate Triolo d’Alene who won the Hennessy at Newbury. He expects AP McCoy, the 18-time champion, “to get off” the Rebecca Curtis-trained Teaforthree – ante-post favourite for the Grand National – and ride this progressive horse still on the upgrade.
The rapport between Francome and Yorkshire-based McGrath has been a big loss to Channel Four since the jockey left the broadcaster at the end of 2012.
This was self-evident when Francome named the Willie Mullins-trained Ballycasey, who runs in Wednesday’s RSA Chase, as his banker of the week. “You won’t find a race long enough for this horse,” he told his audience.
Yet, very gently, McGrath reminded his sidekick that Ballycasey had, in fact, parted company with his jockey Ruby Walsh – the Festival’s winning-most rider – during a schooling session in Ireland last weekend. Should it worry his supporters?
“Not at all,” said Francome. “It would concern me if he fell in a race. Better to do it there.”
Time will tell – McGrath, for the record, selected Smad Place for the three-mile Grade One novice chase. He’s won his last two chases and Alan King’s string is slowly returning to form after being laid low.
Yet, as both agree, horsemanship is always at a premium at Cheltenham and Francome predicts a big week for two of the weighing room’s unheralded names – Nick Scholfield and Jamie Moore.
First Scholfield, who rides Irving in the Festival-opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on Tuesday against Vautour from the all-conquering Mullins yard.
McGrath says the leading Irish challenger must be a special horse because Mullins had originally entered 23 horses, but Francome was not having it. “Irving has got so many gears that he is a joy to ride,” he said.
“Nick Scholfield, he’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I think he will win the Champion Hurdle later on Melodic Rendezvous. This is just the warm-up and he can handle it.
“This Melodic Rendezvous, when he won at Haydock in a bog last month, he actually quickened up after the last.”
As for Jamie Moore, he rides his father Gary’s Sire De Grugy in the BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase.
The white-faced chestnut is a hot favourite for the prestigious two-mile race due to Sprinter Sacre’s absence and has become a firm favourite of racegoers thanks to three high-profile wins.
“I’m getting soft. I would pay for this horse to win,” added Francome. “They’re a lovely team. It’s a big day for Jamie. If he can remain composed and keep hold of this horse after the last, he will win.”