The Festival’s first lady, Jessica Harrington, can give her outstanding career a golden hue by winning racing’s blue riband event with Sizing John today and adding the Timico Gold Cup to her two Champion Chases and a Champion Hurdle.
It is a race packed with intrigue: the sport’s most popular horse, Cue Card, hoping to win it for Colin Tizzard at the age of 11, with stable-mate Native River also strongly fancied.
A resurgent Ruby Walsh-Willie Mullins partnership, after four wins on Thursday, targeting victory for Djakadam with the trainer hoping to end his sequence of six runners-up finishes. Lizzie Kelly breaking another glass ceiling for women jockeys on Tea For Two. But Harrington and Sizing John can upstage them all.
At the end of last summer neither Sizing John nor Supasundae, Wednesday’s Coral Cup winner, which took Harrington one clear of the record eight winners at this fixture she previously shared with Jenny Pitman, were in her yard at Moone in Kildare.
But when Alan Potts, one cog in the merry-go-round of big owners on the move last autumn, took away a dozen horses from Henry de Bromhead, Harrington was, along with Tizzard, one of the main beneficiaries. And while the wholesale removal of horses from trainers does nothing for an owner’s popularity, it is unarguably their prerogative. Emotions are still raw.
Sizing John has trailed round in Douvan’s wake for most of his life – including last year’s Arkle here and in the year before’s Supreme – and after a fifth thrashing over two miles at Leopardstown at Christmas, Harrington stepped the seven-year-old up in trip.
He improved to win the Kinloch Brae over two and a half miles at Thurles next time out before stepping up again to win the Irish Gold Cup over three miles at Leopardstown in February. There he travelled well to the last and stayed on well.
Questions about his stamina for three-and-a-quarter miles are only being asked because he has been running at two miles. But rather than query his stamina, I believe he has been crying out for Friday’s trip on this ground.
His sire, Midnight Legend, is a strong influence for stamina and he comes here with a similar profile to Best Mate, who would have run in the 2001 Arkle before tackling his first Gold Cup had the race not been cancelled because of foot and mouth.
Sizing John is a stayer with gears and, the longer Robbie Power can travel and use his jumping to maintain his position without coming off the bridle, the more he will have saved for a turn of foot from the back of the second last to beat the stayers up the hill.
The other with the speed to win over shorter trips is Cue Card. Richard Johnson on Native River and David Mullins on De Bromhead’s Champagne West will try to ensure an end-to-end gallop to make sure it is not a sprint finish, but Sizing John should have no problem with that.
“I’m confident he’ll stay,” said his jockey Power, who won the Grand National on Silver Birch and, with his show-jumping hat on, has ridden in the Hickstead Derby. “It was stamina which won him the Kinloch Brae and he stayed Leopardstown well.”
Harrington, 70, whose late husband, Johnny, was legendary in bloodstock circles, started out as an international eventer riding in two Olympics before switching to racing in 1989 and has been a house guest of Nicky Henderson this week.
“I worried at Leopardstown about the heavy ground and he’ll be much better suited to good ground,” she said. “He jumps at two-mile speed while the others jump at three-mile speed. He was pretty free for a mile and a half at Leopardstown so I’m hoping they’ll go fast enough so Robbie can keep easing him back.”
She added: “His mate [Supasundae] won on Wednesday. They live together on a different part of the farm away from the others and six weeks ago we rang up to ensure we got a companion box where they can see each other through a grill in the racecourse stables. He lived with a goat before he came to me but they didn’t send the goat!
“He travels in a two-horse box on his own. There are lot of little quirks we have to work around but he’s grand and we’ll hope for the best.”