Sizing John shows willing character to claim Gold Cup crown
Friday 17 March 2017
Cheltenham acclaimed a new champion today as Sizing John dispelled stamina doubts to win the Gold Cup, as Andy Stephens reports
Acceptance speeches usually feature plenty of “thank yous” and Jessica Harrington did not deviate from the script after Sizing John had won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in stunning style on Friday.
The seven-year-old jumped, travelled and quickened with such brio that it is difficult to believe he would not have beaten Thistlecrack, Don Cossack and Coneygree even had they made the line-up.
Sizing John might also be the type to push the sport beyond its usual boundaries, too, because he and stablemate Supasundae, who won the Coral Cup on Wednesday, share an unusual relationship.
The pair live together, in isolation, on a different part of Harington’s yard from the others and the trainer ensured they had boxes at Cheltenham where they could see each other through a grill.
Before that, when trained by Henry de Bromhead, he enjoyed the company of a goat. “But they didn’t send the goat,” Harrington said.
One thing is for sure, racing's odd couple will have plenty to chat about back at home tomorrow.
Everybody loves a horse with character and the beauty of Sizing John is that he has ability in equal measure. God willing, he will thrill us for years to come.
Kauto Star was the last seven-year-old to win the race, a decade ago, and while today’s victor has a long way to go before matching anything like that great horse’s exploits there is scope for plenty more glory days, though his next target is unknown. “I haven’t a clue where he might run next,” Harrington said.
On her way to the post-race media conference, she signed the sweatshirt of a fan among the capacity crowd of 68,000 bedecked in the colours of JP McManus. He did not seem worried that Minella Rocco, the runner-up, wore those silks.
Once inside, Harrington sipped champagne and was reluctant to give herself any credit.
She was grateful to her team at home; to Robbie Power for suggesting the gelding be stepped up in trip; to Alan Potts, the owner, for insisting on going for gold when she would have opted for the Ryanair Chase; and also to De Bromhead, who had trained him until this season - even if he did not send on the goat.
Not many trainers credit a rival horse, too, but she also pointed to the unwitting role that Douvan had played in Sizing John’s date with destiny.
“If you actually think about it, if Douvan had not been around, we'd have stayed over two miles,” she said. “The fact that Douvan is there, we were almost forced to step up to two miles, five furlongs or three miles.
“I genuinely thought that because he is only a seven-year-old, this year he should maybe go for the Ryanair, but his owner Alan Potts definitely wanted to go for the Gold Cup - so here we are. I just had a little bit of reservation, I thought he'd be guaranteed to win the Ryanair on form. But when I got my head around it, I thought 'right, the Gold Cup it is'.”
In total, Douvan and Sizing John met on seven occasions over two miles during a two-year time period - the last of their battles coming at Punchestown over Christmas when Douvan won by eight lengths.
The Willie Mullins-trained star treated Sizing John as a punchbag. He never beat him by less than seven lengths and on one occasion left him trailing by 22.
Some horses would have been left demoralised by such bruising treatment but Sizing John kept coming back for more and now we all know that all he needed to reach his full potential was the company of Supasundae and a distance of ground.
“It is the jewel in the crown,” Harrington said. “It has not really sunk in yet, I can't believe it is true. I am sitting here, I am about to wake up and it hasn't happened.”
The 70-year-old has also won a Champion Hurdle (with Jezki) and two editions of the Champion Chase (with Moscow Flyer) but the Grand National does not seem at the top of her priorities. “I can't believe it, I've got to get a Classic now [on the Flat].”
An emotional Potts said: “It's unreal, it's my dream and it's come true. It's our first runner in the race, the jockey's first ride and Jessie's first runner.”
Power has won the Grand National, aboard Silver Birch in 2007, but reflected he was probably too young to appreciate the magnitude of that win.
He said: “When I won the Grand National I was 25 and I thought I was going to win everything - now I am 35 I realise that I am not going to win everything, so to win a Gold Cup at this age is fantastic.
“The nicest words I ever heard were 'Gold Cup-winning jockey' announced on the podium. That sounded sweet.”
Reflecting on the way race panned out, he said: “The plan was to be middle of the fence and keep out of trouble, but after the second I felt there was plenty of room on the inside and I switched. I was going out to the second circuit and praying that nothing would fall and bring me down - I thought that Jessie would kick my arse for being on the inside.
"But riding for Jessie is fantastic, she never ties you down to instructions, you can use your brain and go where there is a bit of room. It was Plan B to go down the inside, I found myself there and got a great run round.”
Lizzie Kelly did not get beyond the second fence on Tea For Two and Cue Card crashed out three out when struggling to keep up. Their departures ensured there was to be no fairytale winner, but there was a very worthy one whose career has many chapters to come.