He was made to work as hard as he ever has to take the prize, producing a career-best performance to defeat the multiple Group 1 winner Vazirabad by three quarters of a length. He has since established his position at the top of the tree, winning the inaugural Stayers' £1 million bonus, before becoming the first Gold Cup winner to go through the full season unbeaten since Pardallo in 1968 when signing off with victory in the Champions Long Distance Cup here in October.
He arrives here this time around as the undisputed king of the division, and is aiming to win the bonus for the second year running having defied a penalty to make a winning reappearance in last month's Yorkshire Cup, by three quarters of a length from Southern France. He was typically workmanlike to do so, but was always doing enough to dispatch of an improving sort who had race fitness on his side, and, a tremendously game and genuine horse, he is the clear standard-setter in this with that outing now under his belt.
Standing in his way this time around are two fresh faces, in the form of four-year-olds Cross Counter and Dee Ex Bee . The latter didn't record a single victory in 2018, but he showed himself to be a very smart performer on several occasions, notably finishing second behind Masar in the Epsom Derby. He's progressed further for the step up to two miles this year, winning the Sagaro Stakes and then the Henry II Stakes at Sandown last time out. A prominent racer, he's been shaping as though there could be more to come as his stamina is even more drawn out, and is a big danger to Stradivarius if he improves again for the step up to two and a half miles.
Cross Counter enjoyed a highly successful campaign last year, culminating with victory in the Melbourne Cup, where he relished the step up in trip to defeat Marmelo by a length. He matched that form when winning the Dubai Gold Cup at Meydan on his reappearance in March, needing several reminders to assert inside the final furlong but well in command in the final 100 yards. The extra half a mile will ask a different question of him here, but he's been shaping as though the step up to two and a half miles will suit and he is a big danger if staying the trip.
Best of the Rest
Considering that he's a seven-time winner of the race, Aidan O'Brien's runners must always be taken seriously, and is represented by three here, in the form of Capri, Flag of Honour and Cypress Creek. The first-named has the talent to get involved in this, considering that he won an Irish Derby and a St Leger at three, and finished a creditable fifth behind Enable in last season's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. However, he has been well below form in two starts so far this term and as such has plenty to prove, including his stamina. Flag of Honour won last year's Irish St Leger, but he has been beaten fair and square on three occasions by stablemate Magical so far this term, and would need to find more for all that this step up in trip should suit, while Cypress Creek has plenty to find on form.
Three more to note are Magic Circle, Thomas Hobson and the French raider Called To The Bar. The first-named looked a stayer to follow when winning last year's Chester Cup, and although things didn't go to plan in his long-term target the Melbourne Cup last November, he shaped well over an inadequate trip on reappearance at Chester last month and it would be no surprise to see an improved effort here, for all he has to prove himself at this trip. Called To The Bar is well worth his place here after a Group 2 win at Longchamp last time, though he is untested at two and a half miles, while Thomas Hobson got within one and a half lengths of Stradivarius in the Long Distance Cup last season, but he would need more for win purposes. The field is completed by Raymond Tusk and Master of Reality, both of whom have something to find if they are to play any part.
In summary, this year's renewal of the Gold Cup isn't without depth, but it remains difficult to look past Stradivarius . He defied a penalty to make a winning reappearance in the Yorkshire Cup last month, and with that now under his belt, he can take another step towards landing the £1 million bonus for the second year running. Should he fail to reproduce his best, then last year's Melbourne Cup winner Cross Counter and Dee Ex Bee would be there to push him very close.
Back Stradivarius at evens in Thursday's Ascot Gold Cup