Johns Spirit is trying to become just the 6th horse to win the Paddy Power Gold Cup and its previous versions at Cheltenham on Saturday. The last multiple winner, Cyfor Malta, won the race in 1998 and 2002 while Bradbury Star was the most recent back-to-back dual winner in 1993 and 1994. Johns Spirit will need to win the race to boost Jonjo O’Neill’s chances of winning the trainer’s championship for the first time.
Nicky Henderson has only won this race that is the first major handicap chase of the jumps season once in 2003 with Fondmort. Oscar Whisky was a doubtful runner for the trainer but conditions have now gone in the horse’s favour and he looks like taking his chance. The horse has a great record at Cheltenham and course form is significant in the major races at the home of National Hunt racing.
Colour Squadron was second in the race twelve months ago and if running would have a weights pull relative to Johns Spirit. JP McManus is the biggest investor in British and Irish jumps racing but he has never won a Paddy Power. It would be ironic if a former bookmaker based in Ireland won the race sponsored by Ireland’s most controversial bookmaker.
Paddy Power employs somebody to dream up their outrageous publicity campaigns and possibly the most infamous was offering odds on the outcome of the Oscar Pistorius case. Installing a massive banner on the hills overlooking Cheltenham racecourse during the Festival was less controversial but asking professional footballers to wear Paddy Power underpants is somewhere between the two stunts in terms of good taste.
The company have received far better coverage in the racing press from the races won by Slade Power and Sole Power, owned by members of the family. Slade Power suffered an injury in Australia recently that could end the horse’s career. Sole Power was the champion sprinter in Europe last season. He is unique in winning the King’s Stand Stakes at Ascot and the Nunthorpe Stakes at York, on both occasions accelerating to win the race in the closing stages.
The Paddy Power Gold Cup is near the other end of the racing spectrum to sprint Flat races run over five and six furlongs. It is a Grade 3 chase open to horses aged four or older. It is run over the Old Course at Cheltenham and the distance is 2 miles and just over four furlongs. The race is a handicap with 15 fences and Paddy Power became the sponsors in 2003 after various changes in the race’s title to accommodate the sponsors.
The race was first run in 1960 and is one of the oldest races to be sponsored in the British racing calendar. In the 14 renewals since the start of the millennium five winners have carried eleven stone or more. The last eleven winners have been aged 6, 7 or 8 and the last winner aged 10 or older was Clear Cut in 1975. Tony McCoy has won the race four times but won’t be adding to that tally on Saturday as he will be absent due to injury.
This is a race and meeting targeted by Martin Pipe and his son David has maintained the tradition. Pipe Senior won the race seven times and usually the winning horse was owned by David Johnson, his main backer who is sadly no longer with us. David Pipe won the race for the same owner with Great Endeavour in 2011 ridden by Timmy Murphy who has won the Paddy Power three times himself.
Johns Spirit and Oscar Whisky are the join top weights in Saturday’s race. It is not a contest known for big weight carrying performances though Exotic Dancer carried 11 stone 2 pound in 2006. That horse was trained by O’Neill and ridden by McCoy, two of the most popular jockeys in the history of the sport in Britain and Ireland. Ruby Walsh is also up there with the best jump jockeys ever and he rode Al Ferof three years ago when that horse won the race for Paul Nicholls.
Johns Spirit carried just 10 stone two pound last year but now has the added burden of 22 more pounds which may make him uncompetitive in such a tough handicap. Winning back to back in any handicap chase is tough as a horse’s weight is often over adjusted. Winning any such race a second time is beyond the scope of most horses bar the exceptional and although tough and consistent Johns Spirit is not in that bracket.
Oscar Whisky is arguably the classiest horse in the race. Nicky Henderson’s charge has won six races in13 contests at Cheltenham. However the last one was the most disappointing as he fell at the first fence at the festival. Oscar Whisky will have the highest weight possible in the Paddy Power but his chase rating is still eight pounds
lower than his mark in hurdles races. The horse clearly likes the track and the trip is also in his favour so the positive are greater than the negatives and Henderson could win the race for the second time.
Colour Squadron looked the likely winner after jumping the final fence this time last year. However, he jinxed on the run-in and lost all chance of passing the winning post in first place. Colour Squadron is also in a novice chase at the three day Cheltenham meeting but he will only be a confirmed runner in the Paddy Power Gold Cup after discussions amongst the connections. The ground is projected to be good to soft and that could favour a horse who has developed a habit of finishing seconds in his races.
Ericht and Buywise are two other horses to consider when trying to identify potential winners. Both have run recently and could have a fitness edge but Johns Spirit was very impressive at the last Cheltenham meeting and can overcome a hike in the weights.