England excited by Festival debut in Gold Cup

Cloudy Too. Picture: Alan Wright.
Cloudy Too. Picture: Alan Wright.
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IF Sue Smith’s Cloudy Too can spring a 66-1 shock in today’s Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup, 
National Hunt racing’s most prestigious contest, it will eclipse her stable’s famous wins at those odds with Mister McGoldrick and Auroras Encore.

The reason? Mister McGoldrick’s front-running Cheltenham victory in 2008 and Auroras Encore’s famous National win last April were in handicaps where a horse’s weight is supposed to equate to its ability so every contender has an equal chance.

Today Cloudy Too, who confirmed his promise when winning Wetherby’s Rowland Meyrick Chase on Boxing Day, has to compete on level terms against class horses like the defending champion Bobs Worth, King George winner Silviniaco Conti, Hennessy hero Triolo d’Alene, who will be ridden by AP McCoy, and Cheltenham specialist The Giant Bolster.

As Smith said: “Winning a race at Cheltenham is difficult enough, winning a Grade One is even harder.”

Victory would be even more extraordinary because Smith and her husband Harvey, the redoubtable showjumper, have entrusted the riding responsibilities to Cloudy Too’s regular jockey Jonathan England – even though this will be his first race at the Festival.

It is a vote of confidence that means the world to England, 
No 2 to National-winning rider Ryan Mania at the Craiglands Farm stable at High Eldwick.

He has already enjoyed four career victories, including the Rowland Meyrick on Cloudy Too, and was second to the consistent Captain Chris in the Grade One Betfair Ascot Chase last time out.

Even though he will be the least experienced rider in the race, it does not appear to faze England.

“It’s brilliant really. I am very thankful to Sue and Harvey, and the owners (Neil Howarth), for having the faith in me,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

“Sue called me to one side last week and said ‘make sure you are fit for Cheltenham’. That’s all she said.

“It’s very exciting. I’ve never ridden at the Festival before – and now I have a ride in the biggest race of the week. I thought he ran a blinder at Ascot. Three miles-plus will suit him better, but I know I’ve got to try and treat it like any other race.

“We’re going there to win. To be placed would be brilliant. Anything else would be a bonus. The odds are bigger than they should be.”

The experience will mean even more to the 22-year-old conditional jockey, who can still utilise his three-pound weight allowance in ordinary races, because he grew up in the Cotswolds.

His career only started to take off when he joined the Smith stable a couple of years ago and he is already on the 19-winner mark for the season – a personal best.

His first Gold Cup memory was watching Barry Geraghty win the 2005 renewal on Tom Taaffe’s exciting chaser Kicking King.

Now England finds himself competing against Geraghty whose Bobs Worth will attempt to become just the fourth horse since the war – after Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate – to successfully defend the Gold Cup.

He has a respectable chance after making up for a dismal run in Haydock’s Betfair Chase by winning Leopardstown’s prestigious Lexus Chase over Christmas.

Even though Bobs Worth is unbeaten from five starts round Cheltenham, conditions today will be diametrically opposed to 12 months ago when courage got Nicky Henderson’s stable star up the final hill on stamina-sapping soft ground after he appeared to lose his position.

Today he may not have the chance to recover if he is outpaced by the Paul Nicholls-trained Silviniaco Conti, who came to prominence when winning Wetherby’s 2012 Charlie Hall Chase before falling three out in last year’s Gold Cup.

The most popular winner would be the supposed Henderson second-string Triolo d’Alene.

Well-backed all week, victory would be a third win in the race for record-breaking McCoy whose own career, after more than 4,000 wins, is entering the final furlong.

It would also be incredibly emotional – the 18-times champion jockey’s seven-month-old son Archie is recovering from major cardiac surgery.

While it would be foolhardy to dismiss the chances of Cloudy Too – a second runner in the race for the Smith stable after Royal Emperor was eighth in the 2006 Gold Cup – this could be the day when The Giant Bolster finally comes of age for jockey Tom Scudamore and his no-nonsense trainer David Bridgwater.

This is the horse that actually headed Synchronised – and McCoy – on the dash to the last fence in the 2012 Gold Cup before finishing fourth last year.

After some modest runs, The Giant Bolster returned to winning ways when landing the 
Argento Chase at Cheltenham at the end of January.

Scudamore, who enjoyed the biggest win of his career aboard Western Warhorse in Tuesday’s Arkle Trophy, said: “The more I watch the replays of that race, the more I think we’ve got a chance.

“I’ll be very disappointed if we’re not in the first three.”

His view is shared by Bridgwater, a former jockey who rode five Festival winners before he suffered a career-ending elbow injury at Aintree in 1998.

“He’s got a great chance and people don’t give him the credit he deserves,” said the trainer. “He came out of the last race fantastically well.”