Unioniste is 33/1 to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup after an impressive win in a listed chase at Aintree. Before that the next target had been the December Gold Cup at Cheltenham on Saturday, a race the horse won last year. As the winner of a handicap chase Unioniste cannot go down the novice route so will be targeted at the most prestigious chases over the course of the season but a quick reappearance has been shelved.
Unioniste is owned by John Hales and trained by Paul Nicholls. Al Ferof is associated with the same connections and is prominent in the market for the King George V1 Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day. That race is the mid-season championship and a good trial for the Gold Cup. Al Ferof has the form in hurdles to suggest he can win that race and really get in the mix for the Gold Cup.
The Christmas race at Kempton is also in the diary for Cue Card, impressive winner of the Betfair Chase at Haydock last month. The Betfair, King George and Gold Cup are the most important chases of the season. All three races are sponsored by bookmakers though some people at Jockey Club Racecourses would like them under one sponsor that ideally would not be a bookmaker. That member of staff is now on gardening league, having managed to upset three companies that are loyal and valuable sponsors of racing.
Unioniste appeared in bookmaker’s lists for the Gold Cup after winning at Aintree. The race was run over three miles one furlong and at the end of that trip Unioniste had the energy to pull away from Wishful Thinking to win the race by seven lengths. Wishful Thinking is a useful yardstick but in the context of the Gold Cup the form is hard to assess.
The Giant Bolster was clear top rated and looked in fine condition in the paddock before the race. The horse has finished fourth and second in the last two Gold Cups but fell before making an impact in the race last Saturday. The horse truly is giant but very relaxed before racing. He will again be campaigned for another Gold Cup and odds 25-1 to win that race may seem very generous next March.
If Unionste was the horse to take out of the race at Aintree Katenko clearly was not. Still in contention jumping the cross fence five out Katenko weakened up the straight and was a well beaten horse before the last obstacle. Katenko could not run in last season’s Gold Cup due to a minor injury. There was enough form from the early part of last season to suggest Katenko could compete at the highest level. Something was amiss at Aintree and the horse can be forgiven a bad race.
In the context of the December Gold Cup Unioniste ran a great trial at Aintree but has not been declared to run. He was taken out of Saturday’s race which suggests he will be kept back for non-handicap races which will reveal more about where he is the pecking order for staying chases. Nicholls has Silviniaco Conti as well as Al Ferof under his care so should have a handle on the relative ability of these top class chasers.
Unioniste will not run seven days after winning at Aintree so the December Gold Cup now revolves around the first two horses in the Paddy Power Gold Cup. Johns Spirit had the race won before idling on the run-in to allow Colour Squadron to finish just a length behind which flattered the runner up. Cantlow was heavily touted for Cheltenham last year but could not run and has already won a decent trial for Saturday’s race at Newbury last month when Grandioso was third.
Johns Spirit is trained by Jonjo O’Neill, a trainer with an excellent record in handicap chasers. He has won the Gold Cup and Grand National in a great training career after being one of the best jockeys of his generation. He is the only person to win the Gold Cup as a trainer and jockey with a horse that was subsequently favourite for the National only to be fatally injured. Alverton and Synchronised both paid the ultimate price in trying to become the only horse to win the Gold Cup and National in the same season.
Captain Conan was never going to be the deputy or second string to Sprinter Sacre in the Tingle Creek Chase. The majestic horse did not run a Sandown due to an unsatisfactory tracheal wash. Captain Conan then became Nicky Henderson’s main hope but was well beaten by Sire De Grugy and overtaken by Somersby on the run in at Sandown. Sire De Grugy is still 16/1 to win the Champion Chase and that could be a price worth taking as it would contract to one third that size if Sprinter Sacre could not run at Cheltenham.
Nicholls is now leading the jumps trainer’s championship and he can continue his fine run of form with Grandioso in the December Gold Cup. The trainer had 5 winners last weekend and believes this horse can maintain the run by winning another big Saturday televised race. The stable are dealing with new personnel including a new stable jockey in Daryl Jacob after the departure of Ruby Walsh and have leading contenders for several of the major championship races next spring.
Nicholls believe Grandioso can be competitive with the allocated weight and the horse should relish the ground. He ran a good trial when third behind Cantlow at Newbury in a decent race. The horse jumped and travelled well for most of the race but got tired towards the end. The trainer is 4-1 to win the trainer’s championship again and will be looking to win major prizes like the one available on Saturday to be in a strong position before the key meetings at Cheltenham and Aintree next spring.
Only three horses have won the two main autumn and winter handicaps at Cheltenham but Johns Spirit has been penalised for winning the Paddy Power Gold Cup. O’Neill relishes these major handicap chases but in Grandioso Nicholls could have a horse that can add a significant amount of prize money to his haul this season to date but Cantlow is another horse that should not be dismissed based on the form of that race at Newbury.