High hopes for Minella Rocco as Cheltenham Gold Cup dream grows
A picture of Synchronised hangs in the office at Jonjo O’Neill’s headquarters in tribute to the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner.
Out in the yard at Jackdaws Castle, three boxes along on the left, the former champion jockey thinks he might have one better.
Minella Rocco was second to Sizing John in last season’s Gold Cup and improving on that is the dream for O’Neill, whose hopes are built around the seven-year-old.
It may seem an unlikely mantle for a horse that has won just one of his nine starts over fences, but that came in the National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham Festival and there is a second in the Reynoldstown Chase and a fall at the last when going well behind Many Clouds at Aintree last season among his portfolio.
“He’s a smashing big horse,” said O’Neill as he hosted an owners’ day at Jackdaws Castle on Sunday. “He’s won only one chase so is relatively raw but he’s grand and touch wood everything will go right.
“He didn’t have an easy race in the Gold Cup and being such a big, young horse, giving him a break since then will hopefully have done him good. JP [McManus] is a great owner for giving them time.
“With him having won only one race, we may go to Ireland first at Punchestown in October. We may go to the Betfair Chase after that.
“There are graduation chases here but they all seem to be two and a half miles now. They had a three-miler at Carlisle which I’ve used before for ones like Exotic Dancer and Holywell, who retired in the summer, but it’s been reduced in distance.
“We’ll go back for the Gold Cup in March, and then the National in time, although we’ll probably still enter him at Aintree this year.”
Having won over four miles at the festival in 2016, stamina is not an issue in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, for which he is a best-priced 16-1, but the way the race is run will be key.
O’Neill said: “They didn’t go a mad gallop last season, which didn’t play into our hands, although it did let him settle into a rhythm.
“When Synchronised won they did go a gallop and that helped him as he stayed on up the hill, like Minella Rocco in March. But Minella Rocco would have more class. Synchronised had a big heart, but this one has more ability.”
Cheltenham is also in mind for Taquin Du Seuil, whose campaign will be geared around a tilt at the Stayers’ Hurdle.
Winner of the BetVictor Gold Cup in November, the 2014 JLT Novices’ Chase winner reverted to hurdles at the Festival last season. Having finished second in the Coral Cup, the ten-year-old stays in that sphere.
“We might start him off in the Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby in November, then either go to Haydock for a £100,000 handicap or Newbury for the Long Distance Hurdle," said O'Neill. "He’s not well handicapped over fences.
“Whether he’s good enough is another story, but unless there's something good coming along he’s entitled to take his chance in the Stayers’ Hurdle. You have to dream.”
More to come?
More Of That looked ready to win the Irish Gold Cup when falling at the last but was only sixth at Cheltenham when fancied by his trainer.
O’Neill believes a fibrillating heart – diagnosed last season – could explain the up-and-down form of his 2014 Stayers’ Hurdle winner, who was pulled up in the Grand National on his last start.
He said: “He’s a very honest horse and you wouldn’t notice anything wrong with him at home. He loves working and racing.
“He could start off hurdling but I imagine we'd still go down the Gold Cup route. He’s a brilliant horse, the best I’ve had. Hopefully it'll click right for him.”
Having trained Don’t Push It to win the Grand National seven years ago, O’Neill hopes Go Conquer can develop into a contender having shown an appetite for the fences, before being hampered in the Topham Chase.
He said: “He’s a great jumper and could make up into a National horse. I love this time of the season, it’s like being a kid with a new toy – they’re all brand new, looking fantastic and they’re all unbeaten and going to win everything. It’s so exciting.
“We hope the team is better than last season. We’ve got new horses and owners. We’ve got a couple of nice young horses we think are going to go on, point-to-pointers. They could be brilliant, but you don’t know until they run.”