THE performance of a likely Gold Cup victor? John Francome certainly thinks so, even though reigning champion Long Run only narrowly held off the challenge of stablemate Burton Port who was returning after a prolonged 447-day absence.
“Just the warm-up you need prior to the Gold Cup. The best he’s jumped all season,” said the Channel Four pundit and former champion jockey who won the Cheltenham Festival’s ultimate prize on Midnight Court in 1978.
And, more importantly, so does Long Run’s jockey Sam Waley-Cohen, the top amateur rider who has faced some unfair criticism after his warrior – owned by his father Robert – suffered two reverses this season against a seemingly ageless Kauto Star, one of the greatest ever post-war chasers.
He managed to settle Long Run early in Newbury’s Betfair Denman Chase – thanks to The Giant Bolster’s blistering early pace – before the champion’s long stride clawed back the frontrunner with apparent ease.
It was not over. Both Burton Port and Sir Alex Ferguson’s What A Friend, two classy horses and in receipt of significant weight from the champion, mounted robust challenges and put Long Run’s jumping under considerable pressure.
After Long Run was far from fluent at the final ditch, he sealed victory with a fine jump at the last that left the fast-finishing Burton Port with too much to do.
Paddy Power eased Long Run a fraction to 9-4 from 2-1 to retain his Gold Cup crown, with Kauto Star remaining a 7-2 chance to record a third victory in the blue riband race. Burton Port was unsurprisingly slashed to 8-1 from 25-1.
And while the Gold Cup will, in every likelihood, be determined by Long Run’s jumping, and whether it stands up to pressure in a fiercely-run race, his rider could not have been happier – especially as the extra two furlongs at Cheltenham will play to his mount’s strengths.
“That was just what we wanted. I was really pleased with his jumping. He was a little careless with the water (jump), but apart from that he’s jumped really well. You couldn’t ask for more from a seasoned chaser,” said Waley-Cohen.
“That is exactly the confidence boost you want to go to the Gold Cup with. He felt like a different horse altogether today. We went a right good gallop and, if anything, I think we’ve learnt how to set him up for a fence when you are going that big quicker.”
That view was shared by Nicky Henderson, Long Run’s relieved trainer who has been previously concerned about his stable star’s fluency at his fences.
“Sam said there was loads there and he was enjoying himself. He was much more fluent today,” said Henderson.
The Seven Barrows handler was equally thrilled with the runner-up who has not raced since finishing second to Diamond Harry in the 2010 Hennessy.
Though he won’t enjoy yesterday’s 10lb weight advantage at Cheltenham, Henderson said: “He will run in the Gold Cup. He’s a stone better than he ever was before.”
Yet it is a measure of Henderson’s horsepower that his preceding one-two – with Sprinter Sacre and French Opera – was more impressive than Long Run’s battle with Burton Port.
Why? The runner-up French Opera, ridden by Andrew Tinkler, is a class act – but he was made to look pedestrian by the brilliance of novice chaser Sprinter Sacre, a winner at Doncaster last December, and now the red-hot favourite for the Arkle Trophy after breaking Newbury’s two-mile course record.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever ridden anything like that – he’s electric,” said jockey Barry Geraghty who enjoyed a great association with two-time Champion Chase victor Moscow Flyer. “He has scope and travels and when he popped the last it was a relief that he was thinking that way,”
Elsewhere, Zarkandar further enhanced his Champion Hurdle prospects with an amazing weight-carrying victory in the Betfair Hurdle.
One of the first under pressure, Paul Nicholls’s Triumph Hurdle winner was a good five lengths down at the second-last when Darlan and Tony McCoy took a crashing fall – the champion miraculously walked away. And while winning rider Ruby Walsh will, understandably, remain loyal to the imperious Hurricane Fly, the reigning champion at Cheltenham, he said Zarkandar can only improve.