IT is ironic that the only person without a strong view on the Gold Cup credentials of the imperious novice chaser Grands Crus is the most important of all – jockey Tom Scudamore.
“It’s not my decision to make,” said the accomplished rider after labelling the galloping grey as the best horse that he has ridden. “Wherever he goes, I will be more than happy to ride him.”
Scudamore was speaking exclusively to the Yorkshire Post a week after Grands Crus powered to Grade One success in the Feltham Novices Chase in a time that was three seconds quicker than Kauto Star’s heroic King George triumph just over an hour later.
No less a judge than Sir Peter O’Sullevan, still the ‘voice of racing’, described the victory of Grands Crus as “immaculate” – while Roger Stanley, who shares ownership with Yvonne Reynolds, said their pride and joy was “70-30” more likely to run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup than the RSA Chase, the traditional championship for novice steeplechasers.
Simon Holt, Channel Four Racing’s commentator, concurs. Highlighting Kauto Star as unlikely to win a third Gold Cup, and Long Run’s jumping frailities, he observed: “The way Grands Crus travelled at Kempton was unmistakably that of a top class racehorse and a future Gold Cup winner and, if allowed to run, he will be the horse to beat in March.”
Yet, while horse racing’s narrative in 2012 will revolve around Sir Henry Cecil’s wondercolt Frankel, a proven champion who is staying in training, Grands Crus – a grey that rekindles memories of Desert Orchid and One Man – has the wow factor, a horse that could dominate jump racing for several seasons. That is why he is my horse to follow.
The last novice to win the Gold Cup was Captain Christy. Victorious in 1974, he had fallen in two of his previous six runs over fences and was trained by Pat Taaffe, who had ridden the legendary Arkle to three triumphs in Cheltenham’s blue riband race.
Since then, 20 novices have contested the race, with the best performance coming from Dorans Pride who was third to the AP McCoy-inspired Mr Mulligan in 1997.
Yet David Pipe, the trainer of Grands Crus, is acutely aware that his father Martin’s novice chaser Gloria Victis suffered a heartbreaking fatal fall at the penultimate fence of the 2000 renewal when still in contention.
It is understandable, therefore, that connections want to keep their options open – Grands Crus, a gallant runner-up to the mighty Big Buck’s in last year’s World Hurdle, has only raced three times over fences, albeit winning each contest with aplomb.
However, Scudamore also knows the RSA Chase can leave a mark on winners – only Denman has won this contest, and then the Gold Cup, in the past decade.
Grands Crus, says Scudamore, is likely to reappear in Cheltenham’s Argento Chase, a proven Gold Cup trial, at the end of the month when this imposing seven-year-old takes on established steeplechasers for the first time.
“Just how good is he? I don’t know,” said the engaging jockey. “He was just very, very straight-forward at Kempton.
“I know it is boring but you can’t ask for any more than that in a Grade One race against top class horses.
“I was always very, very comfortable. There were no scares – and that doesn’t happen very often in a Grade One. Maybe, in an ideal world, it may have been better to get a lead for longer rather than taking it up at the seventh last, but he doesn’t stop in front and there was still plenty left at the line. He has done everything asked of him and I wasn’t surprised about the time – there was no hiding place out there.”
Scudamore has always held the grey in the highest regard, despite two narrow reverses to the record-breaking Big Buck’s.
That was self-evident at Wetherby’s Charlie Hall meeting when he was asked about Grands Crus. “Don’t tell anyone but we’ve schooled him over a fence.”
The knowing look in his eye spoke volumes – and victories at Cheltenham, Newbury and now Kempton, all against top novices, have not diminished Scudamore’s optimism.
Quite the opposite. Scudamore knows that Grands Crus will, in all likelihood, be the best horse that he ever rides – and provide him with a chance to equal the feat of his grandfather Michael, who won the 1957 Gold Cup on Linwell. That said, Scudamore is taking nothing for granted. Like anyone associated with the Pipe yard at the turn of the century, he was devastated by the death of Gloria Victis, coincidentally the 1999 Feltham winner.
Like Gloria Victis, everyone in racing has a view on whether Grands Crus could do himself justice in Cheltenham’s centrepiece.
Co-owner Stanley, whose colours were carried by Scudamore to 2008 Hennessy glory on the recently retired Madison Du Berlais, says: “We must do what’s best for the horse and in this case it’s probably running him in the Gold Cup, because the faster pace will be in his favour.
“He wouldn’t mix it with Kauto Star and Long Run coming down the hill, but we would see what happens from then on.”
As to the aforementioned Sir Peter O’Sullevan, he says: “I have got a feeling they will go for the Gold Cup but I would leave it another year.”
That view is shared by West Witton trainer Ferdy Murphy. “The problem with novice chasers is there are not enough races for them – they’re having to be pushed too quickly,” he said. “However, Grands Crus is the best staying chaser in the country. Al Ferof, the likely two mile champion from Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson’s Sprinter Sacre, who also won at Kempton, will be unbeatable around Aintree.”
Novice chasing’s strength in depth is illustrated by the fact that Scudamore has previously ridden Notus de La Tour who was narrowly beaten in Leopardstown’s Grade One novice chase on Boxing Day.
“In any other year, he’d be an Arkle winner – but probably not this year,” added the jockey.
“We’ve had Kauto Star and Denman, but it’s great to be part of a new golden generation of chasers coming through. There’s an embarrassment of riches.
“I’ve ridden some greats – Madison Du Berlais, Lough Derg. Until now, Well Chief was the best I’ve ridden.
“I only rode him once, at Taunton, but that was amazing and he was unlucky not to win a Champion Chase. Not any more. Grands Crus is the best. He has everything. Speed, stamina and he jumps well. He’s improving all the time.
“It’s hard to say whether he is better over fences than hurdles because he was a very, very good hurdler, but he could be. Ask me in two years’ time. I’m just the rider. Where Grands Crus goes, I’ll be there – injury permitting.”