|Friday 21st November 2014|
Eagerly anticipated Hennessy Gold Cup draws closer
As ever, the ultra-competitive Grade 3 Hennessy Gold Cup has attracted a quality field of smart staying chasers in what is undoubtedly one of the feature events of the autumn jumps calendar. The likes of Djakadam, Fingal Bay, Many Clouds, Smad Place, and Rocky Creek, are just a few of the possible winners of the 29 November showcase contest which invariably throws up a progressive, talented winner capable of going on to even better things, writes Elliot Slater.
Eight times since the Hennessy Gold Cup was first run in 1957, the winner of this gruelling three-and-a-quarter-mile handicap chase has also won the Grade 1 Cheltenham Gold Cup, an indication of just how important a race the Newbury contest is, and how it invariably includes horses that go on to run in the feature events at both the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals.
You only have to glance back as recently as 2012, the year in which the Nicky Henderson-trained Bobs Worth landed the ‘Hennessy’ under 11st 6lbs, to understand how significant the race is. His three-and-a-quarter-length defeat of the much loved veteran Tidal Bay confirmed that Bobs Worth, winner of the previous season’s Grade 1 RSA Chase at Cheltenham, was a genuine contender for Gold Cup honours a few months later. His subsequent seven-length defeat of Sir Des Champs in the blue riband event in March 2013 confirmed again – as if confirmation was needed – just how key a trial the Newbury highlight is, and how it often acts as the perfectly placed stepping stone to Cheltenham, especially for those horses for whom muddy conditions in mid-winter are best avoided.
As the countdown well and truly begins to this year’s renewal the horse at the head of the betting lists is Djakadam, a 7/1 market leader with the fixed odds firms and offered to back at 8.4 on Betfair. The Willie Mullins-trained challenger is only a five-year-old and has had just three starts over fences, making him probably the least exposed runner in the Hennessy field. A fair hurdler, he took well to fences in winning his first two starts over the larger obstacles – both at Leopardstown – including the Grade 2 Killiney Novice Chase over an extended two-and-a-half miles in January.
He was duly given the green light to go to the Cheltenham Festival to have a crack at the Grade 1 JLT Novices Chase, and was still going well in third place at the fourth last when taking a tumble under Paul Townend. It was probably too early to say for sure whether he would have been involved in the finish, but many punters studying the ante-post market for the Hennessy Gold Cup have taken the view that off an official mark of 142 and likely to carry less than 11 stones, there is a good chance that the gelded son of Saint Des Saints might have slipped into the race on a very attractive mark.
One thing Mullins’ exciting prospect has to prove is his stamina, as he will be travelling more than five furlong further than ever before. If the ground comes up testing there will be serious questions asked of Djakadam over the final thee fences and his supporters will only find out if he has what it takes once he charts the unknown territory.
One horse for whom there are no stamina doubts is the Philip Hobbs-trained Fingal Bay, a smart performer who last season returned from a lay-off through injury to get the better of a tremendous battle for the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. It was a fine training performance and a very brave effort from a horse who has long been held in high regard by connections and was a Grade 1-winning novice hurdler back in 2011 when landing the coveted Challow Hurdle.
Although there were a few ups and downs during his first season over fences, Fingal Bay proved he had talent as a chaser, but an injury kept him out of racecourse action for 14 months. When he returned in February of this year the decision was taken to go hurdling and put his chasing career on ice until this campaign. Currently a solidly supported 8/1 chance for the big Newbury race, reports suggest that the eight-year-old son of King’s Theatre has schooled really well and with the stable in terrific form he should run a big race under the red-hot Richard Johnson, who rode seven winners at the recent Cheltenham November fixture. Hobbs knows what it takes to win the race having landed the spoils back in 2001 with the popular What’s Up Boys.
Former champion trainer Nicky Henderson knows even better just when he has the right sort for the Hennessy Gold Cup having won the race for the last two years with Bobs Worth (2012) and Triolo d’Alene (2013), following his earlier success with the talented Trabolgan back in 2005. This time around the Seven Barrows-based handler could again be represented by Triolo d’Alene and could add a second significant string to his bow with last season’s bet365 Gold Cup winner Hadrian’s Approach another under consideration to take his chance in search of the near £100,000 winner’s cheque.
Triolo d’Alene sprang a surprise in last year’s Hennessy Gold Cup, the 20/1 shot stepping up on his third place in the United House Gold Cup on his seasonal return to turn in a career-best performance to beat Rocky Creek by two-and-a-quarter lengths under a fine ride from Barry Geraghty. He wasn’t seen again until finishing down the field in the Cheltenham Gold Cup behind Lord Windermere, a race in which he was beginning to fade approaching the second last under Tony McCoy when he was badly bumped and eased when beaten. His final start of last term was in the Crabbie’s Grand National, for which he was amongst the market leaders, but he lost his place going out onto the second circuit and was pulled up before Bechers a few fences later.
There’s no doubt that the seven-year-old has something to find off an 8lb higher mark for this year’s Hennessy, but he has shown his liking for the course and distance and is still a relatively young horse who could make the step forward. He is generally on offer at 20/1.
Hadrian’s Approach looks at this stage to be the preferred of the two Henderson runners, but we won’t know for sure until news of which horse Geraghty will ride is announced. He might feel reluctant to desert last year’s winner even though his subsequent form was disappointing. Hadrian’s Approach, on the other hand, was progressive last season having let the side down when blundering and unseating Nico de Boinville at the fifth fence in the Hennessy when strongly fancied to take the honours.
He returned to Newbury 20 days later to land a graduation chase before giving the impression that he was outpaced at the business end of the three miles of a competitive handicap at the Cheltenham Festival in March. Stepped up six furlongs by Henderson to for the bet365 (formerly the Whitbread) Gold Cup at Sandown in April, the gelded son of High Chaparral turned in a tremendous effort, running on bravely up the stiff uphill finish to get the better of the classy Burton Port by three-quarters-of-a-length, with the former Scottish National winner Godsmejudge back in third.
While the Grand National at Aintree may well be the prime target for Hadrian’s Approach this season, if the ground comes up very soft and stamina comes into play, the 16/1 shot may well be a contender at Newbury having invariably run well first time out throughout his career.
In a recent interview the normally circumspect Alan King was unusually bullish about the chance of his fine grey Smad Place (8/1) making a winning return to the fray this season in the Hennessy Gold Cup. Reading between the lines, it seems patently clear that the Barbury Castle-based trainer already believes that if things go right then Smad Place could develop into a serious Cheltenham Gold Cup contender by mid-March, and looking at the horse’s profile you’d be hard pushed to disagree with that assessment.
Twice placed in the World Hurdle over three miles, Smad Place made an unlucky start to his novice chasing career when 12 lengths clear at the final fence at Huntingdon last November only to blunder and unseat the hapless Robert Thornton. He made no mistake at Exeter ten days later when slamming the decent Ardkilly Witness by 7 lengths, then followed up with a defeat of Paul Nicholls’ Sam Winner in a hot Newbury Novice Chase in December.
The form of that win received a very solid recent boost when Sam Winner carried top weight to victory at Cheltenham in the Grade 3 Murphy Group Handicap Chase, another reason for King to undoubtedly feel his horse will go to Newbury with a leading chance of success. Sam Winner (14/1) may also head to the Berkshire track and renew rivalry with Smad Place if he is deemed to have recovered in time from his superb Cheltenham effort.
Smad Place had one more run last season, and that came at the Cheltenham Festival in which he covered himself in glory in going down to just a neck defeat at the hooves of O’Faolains Boy in a memorable renewal of the Grade 1 RSA Chase. A horse who often is at his best first-time-out, it seems that Alan King has had the Hennessy Gold Cup at the forefront of his mind since the RSA Chase and he must have a great chance of having his patience rewarded with this exciting prospect.
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls, trainer of Sam Winner, won the Hennessy in both 2007 and 2009 with the superb Denman, having landed an earlier renewal with Strong Flow back in 2003, and again has a potentially strong hand with a cluster of possible runners. Last year’s runner-up Rocky Creek appears to have been specifically targeted at a repeat attempt to win the race and must have pleased connections in finishing second to Road to Riches in the Grade 1 JNwine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal on November 1.
Rocky Creek (12/1) is set to race off just a 5lb higher mark than when second to Triolo d’Alene 12 months ago, and as opposed to last year when he was having his first start of the campaign, he has that all-important pipe-opener under his belt and could be a danger to all. Stablemate Black Thunder is another possible Ditcheat challenger and his half-length second to What a Warrior at the start of the month in the Grade 3 United House Gold Cup Handicap Chase at Ascot showed he appears to have made a seamless transition from novice company to hot handicap chase level.
Easter Day (20/1), who was last seen beating subsequent RSA Chase winner O’Faolains Boy at Ascot 11 months ago, and the talented but unpredictable Unioniste (25/1), are other possible starters for the Nicholls team.
Nicholls’ former assistant trainer Harry Fry has made a tremendous start to his training career and proved he can prepare horses to win good races. Fry’s Mendip Express (20/1) is not without hope having made a pleasing winning return over hurdles at Warwick on Bonfire Night to prove his wellbeing.
The one other major contender to consider is Oliver Sherwood’s Many Clouds (8/1), brought down when still going nicely at the 14th fence in the RSA Chase last season and who made a winning start to this term when getting the better of the useful Eduard in the listed Colin Parker Memorial Intermediate Chase at Carlisle. Many Clouds has form tied in with a number of the leading candidates for the November 29 showcase race and it appears significant that betting firms are taking few chances in pricing him up at 8/1 across the board, paying Sherwood’s charge plenty of respect and hinting that he is held in high regard.