The nature of a dramatic finish like we saw in last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup is such that for all the adulation and ecstasy experienced by the winner, there is always a horse, jockey and trainer that must settle for second place and the pain of coming so close yet just being pipped at the line.
That was the experience of trainer Nicky Henderson, jockey Nico de Boinville and Santini last year, as Al Boum Photo held fast to just take victory at the line in the Gold Cup. It was Al Boum Photo’s second Gold Cup triumph in a row, so that was the size of the task facing Santini, but the horse and jockey kept pace well with the favourite, and so nearly got the job done at the death.
While last year’s race ended in heartbreak, the 2021 Cheltenham Festival brings the chance to go one better and land one of horse racing’s most coveted prizes. At the moment, Santini is placed at odds of around 10/1 to win the race according to the 2021 Cheltenham betting, and he’ll face stiff competition from last year’s foe Al Boum Photo, along with the likes of A Plus Tard, Minella Indo and Champ.
Henderson is a trainer that loves a challenge, and he’ll have been revelling in the prospect of usurping Al Boum Photo and denying him a third successive Gold Cup – which would equal Best Mate’s success in the early 2000s. Champ is another horse trained by Henderson, and arguably poses just as much of a threat to the top favourites as Santini, but the emotional impact of Santini winning the race having come so close last year would be huge.
For jockey de Boinville, last year’s near miss represented a golden opportunity to claim his first Gold Cup triumph, and he has been a jockey on the rise for the last few years. While he just failed to grasp the chance in 2020, there can be no doubt that de Boinville will win the Cheltenham showpiece one day, and it’s possible that it could happen this year should he be selected to ride Santini once again.
Indeed, the nature of the last 12 months for horse racing could mean that this year’s Gold Cup is as wide open as any in recent history. The coronavirus pandemic has hit horse racing hard, as it has every sport, and the winners at this year’s Cheltenham Festival could be the ones who have made the best of a bad lot as far as the pandemic is concerned, and whose preparations and routines have been least affected.
Santini is priced at longer odds this year than he was in the run-up to last year’s festival, and two defeats from two in December just gone will not do much to assuage his doubters, who won’t expect him to be among the winners in the Cheltenham races results. His comeback was a second-place finish in the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree early in the month, and then a rather disappointing fifth-place finish in the King George VI Chase don’t exactly inspire confidence. But the Gold Cup is a different beast altogether, and you can bet that Henderson will be doing all he can to get Santini in tip-top shape for the Cheltenham showpiece.