I briefly met Paul Nicholls at Aintree just after the Grand National as he was walking through the enclosure from where I was watching the racing with the owner of Tidal Bay, Graham Wiley. I asked Nicholls if he would now retire the horse after he was brought down in the National and he replied by saying there was the Whitbread.
The interesting thing about this brief conversation is that Nicholls did not refer to the race as the bet365 Gold Cup. The handicap chase run over two circuits at Sandown at the end of April will always be known as the Whitbread. Their sponsorship must be one of the most successful in sport as years after they last backed the race it is still known as the Whitbread.
Bet365 are a massively successful dotcom business, privately owned by the Coates family and providing 2000 jobs both locally in Stoke and in other parts of the world including Gibraltar. They advertise regularly during half time of football matches and have created a brand based on a wide variety of odds and live betting opportunities.
The race formerly known as the Whitbread is their main race sponsorship project. It must be galling that after considerable financial investment nobody mentions their brand when discussing the race. For many it will always be the Whitbread but sadly the aforementioned Tidal Bay will not be taking part.
Tidal Bay was brought down on the first circuit of the National but still had a say in its outcome. The horse completed a circuit and jumped the fences but inadvertently took Across The Bay out of the race in front top of the stands. The owners, incidentally including my dentist, will never know how the race would have panned out. Across The Bay was jumping well but after the intervention of Tidal Bay was basically out of the race.
Nicholls decided to go for the bet365 in favour of the Scottish National seven days after Aintree. The horse ran a solid race without getting into contention but jumped well and never got into the race carrying a heavy weight. Nicholls says the horse will not be retired and could attempt to become the first 14 year old to win the National next April.
Tidal Bay won Saturday’s race in 2012 as top weight. He was trying to become the first 13 year old top weighted horse to win the National but for some bad luck would have been a major contender. However, he may not have beaten Pineau De Re and place money could have been the best to be expected.
In the absence of Tidal Bay the Bet365 Gold Cup looks an open affair with the favourite at 9/1 and 15 horses at between that price and 20/1. Despite such large odds for so many runners its disappointing that bookmakers will pay out on just the first four for a race that will have at least 20 runners. The sponsors offer the shortest piece for the favourite, Same Difference.
Roalco De Farges is owned by the synadcate that have Balthazar King under their ownership. That horse finished second in the National having won the cross country race at the Cheltenham Festival. Mountainous won the Welsh National so is proven over extended distances but not necessarily on the ground.
Burton Port was backed ahead of the National but fell at the second fence. The horse had a similar profile to the 2012 winner, Neptune Collonges, having run well in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and then had a lengthy lay-off due to injury. Burton Port moved from Nick Henderson’s yard to that of Jonjo O’Neill, proven in major handicap chases.
Burton Port is the class animal in the bet365 field. At his best he was much better than a handicap chaser and was successful at a much higher level. If the wins this race on Saturday connections will be thinking what might have been if he had not fallen so early in the National. He was placed in a Gold Cup and has the class to compete at this level.
Godsmejudge won the Scottish National last season and was second in this year’s renewal. Ayr is a right handed track while Sandown’s races are run the other way round which is a negative for Godsmejudge. He is another horse proven at extended distances and his jumping at Ayr was exceptional. There are seven fences in the back straight at Sandown and its vital to get into a good jumping rhythm before arriving at this section of the course.
Spring Heeled also won at this year’s Cheltenham Festival so will have no problems with the occasion and atmosphere. He is owned by the same connections of the Gold Cup winner, Lord Windermere. His trainer knows how to prepare horses for major chases, of which the Whitbread, sorry bet365 Gold Cup, is one of the most prestigious.