Ruby Walsh plans to leave the decision on which horse he rides in Friday’s Cheltenham Gold Cup until Wednesday morning, but John Francome, who won chasing’s most coveted crown on Midnight Court in 1978, has no doubt that he will side with Djakadam.
Having been entertained by the legendary champion jockey amongst other sporting luminaries during the sponsors’ popular Long Lunch at The Brewery on Friday, a well-lubricated audience still hung on every word of “the greatest jockey” downstairs afterwards as he sat on the Cheltenham Festival preview panel with City A.M. racing editor Bill Esdaile and Channel 4’s Gina Harding.
“Why would he ride Vautour?” asked the legendary former champion. “Anybody out walking their dog at Kempton on Boxing Day would have passed Vautour and Cue Card on the run-in – they were going that slow.
“The ground is irrelevant – both horses are non-stayers, and you need stamina to win a Gold Cup. Djakadam was second as a six-year-old 12 months ago in what was a hot race, and he is the one for Ruby.”
Esdaile felt Francome had the right stable but the wrong horse, preferring Willie Mullins’ Don Poli – “he struggles early and hits a flat spot, but, though not flashy, he gets the job done” – observing that the other Don [Cossack] “is a lovely horse but falls too often for my liking.”
Francome, never one to sit on the fence, was also adamant that Walsh is on the wrong horse in Tuesday's Champion Hurdle, claiming he ought to have plumped for Nichols Canyon instead of 2-1 favourite Annie Power.
He said: “Horses go half a stride faster at the Festival, and if Ruby misjudges the pace up front I worry that Annie Power might not get home.
“I prefer Nichols Canyon, who has beaten Faugheen and, bar that one disappointment last time, has done nothing wrong. At 11-2 he is the value, while Camping Ground could nick a place at big odds.”
Esdaile disagreed and was firmly in the Annie Power camp, especially since her price has eased in recent days. “Mares receive 7lbs and that is a huge plus. She is the best horse in the race, she stays well, and she’ll win.”
The panel were all looking to take on hot-favourite Min in the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, with both Francome and Harding concerned that the free-running Mullins horse “might boil over on the big occasion.”
Francome is getting the right vibes from his Lambourn neighbour, Nicky Henderson, and feels that Altior has the quality to pick up the “jolly” up the straight.
However, he did pass on news that Andrew Tinkler, who rides out regularly at Seven Barrows, is adamant that stablemate Buveur d’Air is the better of the pair.
Harding advised an each-way punt on Supasundae, but Esdaile liked the chances of Tombstone, insisting that Gordon Elliott’s novice was “cracking each-way value at 14-1, especially as they are fitting a hood to get him to switch off.”
None of their crystal balls could find a hole in Douvan, who will start around 4-11 for the Arkle Chase, though Francome, possibly clutching at straws, questioned whether he has ever beaten a good horse over fences.
And, ever the optimist, suggested Henderson’s Vaniteux as the fun bet against the favourite, revealing “he is 10lbs better than he has shown us so far, and if he can warm his jumping up quickly it could be interesting.”
Surprisingly, Francome remains unconvinced about Un De Sceaux in Wednesday’s Betway Champion Chase – “he won’t enjoy a soft lead with Special Tiara in the field and after last week’s schooling session Nicky was using the same sort of superlatives about Sprinter Sacre that he was two years ago.”
Esdaile fired a rasping return of serve across the net, declaring “the favourite was very professional at Ascot, he has matured, is very good and will win.”
No More Heroes was Harding’s banker of day two for the RSA Chase, and, while Francome preferred market rival More Of That for that race, Esdaile’s concerns were the form of Jonjo O’Neill’s team and the drying ground for the Irish horse.
He therefore suggested opposing them with Blaklion, who he believes has never been given the credit he deserves.
Like O’Neill, Alan King’s horses are going through a lean patch, which worried the entire panel when discussing Yanworth (Neptune) and Sceau Royal (Triumph), and Esdaile preferred to keep his powder dry for Campeador (Fred Winter) and New To This Town (Bumper).
All agreed that Thistlecrack was one of the best bets of the week in the World Hurdle – “11/10 is a steal – he’d be 1-2 if we were trained by Willie Mullins,” declared Esdaile, while perhaps predictably Harding remained defiant that Victoria Pendleton was quite entitled to take her chance on Pacha Du Polder in the Foxhunters.
However, Francome, who has led the “no” campaign, closed his eyes and said “there is no way that she will get round – I just hope that horse and rider come back ok, but if Victoria was my sister I would be wetting myself!” Time to return to the bar...
Panel’s Festival Yankees
John Francome – Nichols Canyon (Champion Hurdle), Thistlecrack (World Hurdle), Wait For Me (County Hurdle), Djakadam (Gold Cup)
Gina Harding – Noble Endeavour (NH Chase), If In Doubt (Pertemps Hurdle), Thistlecrack (World Hurdle), Paint The Clouds (Foxhunters)
Bill Esdaile – Tombstone (Supreme Novices’), Blaklion (RSA Chase), Village Vic (Ryanair Chase), Squouateur (Martin Pipe Hurdle)