Racing: Vodka can prove toast in spirit of historic race

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Back in 1960, the year the Hennessy Gold Cup was first run at Newbury after three years at Cheltenham, there was much relief in the sponsor's camp, for the change of venue meant a week-later slot in the calendar and therefore no clash with the Manchester November Handicap. In those days the Flat race was, of course, an occasion of no little consequence and the jumps contest barely out of infancy. Dalnamein, the winner at Castle Irwell, picked up £6,241 and Knucklecracker, victorious in Berkshire, £5,218.

The November Handicap won by Group Captain three weeks ago at Windsor was worth £31,160; the winner of this afternoon's 50th edition of the race that has become one of the milestones of the jump season will earn £85,530. The hero of the hour 46 years ago was Derek Ancil, who both trained and rode Knucklecracker, a 100-7 shot who slogged through the mud at one pace to defeat the Irish raider Zonda, the favourite, by 15 lengths.

Ancil, now 82, cannot remember any master plan. "It was bottomless ground," he said. "My horse was not very fast but he stayed and I just sat up like a soldier and the horse kept galloping and jumping. We went past the Irishman in the straight and beat him out of sight. I just kept looking forward and kicking. It was great fun."

Knucklecracker was a decent horse who went on to finish third in the King George VI Chase, but difficult enough to train. According to Ancil, one of the daily food supplements that helped to keep him sound was a quart of stout. For a brandy chaser today it may pay to go with something stronger.

One of the most impressive performances in defeat this season came from Vodka Bleu (2.40) when he gave best only to Exotic Dancer in the Paddy Power Gold Cup two weeks ago on his first outing for nearly two years. The David Pipe-trained gelding's previous appearance had been when he won the Grade Two novices' chase at this Newbury meeting and even though his victim, Fundamentalist, was badly ridden, Vodka Bleu's performance still put him right among the elite of his generation.

A tendon injury deprived him of the chance to progress, but what might have been was confirmed by his return to action. Still only seven, David Johnson's colour-bearer is the right age - the same as five of the past 10 winners - and fits the profile of an unexposed, potentially high-class, second-season chaser.

His stamina has yet to be tested over more than three miles but he does stay that far and no one is better than Timmy Murphy in finessing. And the Hennessy being an early-closing race Vodka Bleu is 6lb better treated today than in future handicap engagements.

Today's Hennessy is not the classiest in its history but it should be competitive, with everything in the handicap proper. The top weight, Cornish Rebel, third 12 months ago, is guaranteed to get every yard in what is sure to be a bit of a slog and must be on the short-list, especially after having had corrective surgery on his aerobic system during the close season. The other one to consider is Montgermont, another of the progressive younger brigade from a stable which knows how to ready one for a first-time-out strike.

High-class hurdlers will be strutting their stuff at both Newbury and Newcastle. Marathon men have their moment in the Long-Distance Hurdle at the Berkshire venue; last year's winner, Inglis Drever, put Baracouda in his place but this time round may have to cede to another Gallic raider, Zaiyad (2.05). The five-year-old disappointed on his last visit to these shores, when down the field in the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle, but his recent summary disposal of some decent types in the mud at Auteuil was highly impressive.

One of the most eagerly awaited reappearances has been that of Straw Bear, one of the best two-mile novices of last term, who will put his championship credentials on the line in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at High Gosforth. But Noble Request (3.30) has a chance to atone for a dull effort on his seasonal debut and confirm that he, too, is a live title hope.

If it is not heresy to say so on Hennessy day, the best race of the weekend may be tomorrow's Japan Cup. In the £1.3m Tokyo showpiece Britain's brave girl Ouija Board is pitted against local heroes Deep Impact, on a mission to put behind him the shame of finishing only third in the Arc and then failing a dope test, and Heart's Cry.

On the subject of foreign tours, and in view of events at the Gabba, it would surely be a bold call to double up at Towcester this afternoon with Duckworth Lewis and Flintoff in the opening two races.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Montgermont (Newbury 2.40)

NB: Sea The Light (Newbury 3.45)