Steeplechasing's golden oldies are, it seems, being replaced by a gilded generation of emerging young talent. Yesterday Bobs Worth became the latest of last season's novices to put a marker down for this term's senior championship contests with a smooth success, as 4-1 favourite, in the Hennessy Gold Cup.
The seven-year-old was racing for the first time since taking the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March and he has now leapfrogged Sir Des Champs, who has yet to reappear, and Silviniaco Conti, an equally taking winner at Haydock eight days ago, to the top of the Gold Cup betting.
There is nothing flashy about Bobs Worth; he is plain bay in colour and small enough for a top-level jumper. But he is tough, honest, straightforward and enjoys his job, qualities that cannot be judged from the outside. His rider, Barry Geraghty, famously spotted them early, though, having bought the gelding at auction as a yearling and traded him on to trainer Nicky Henderson three years later.
In testing underfoot conditions over an extended three-and-a-quarter miles, Geraghty was content to bide his time as the outsider Fruity O'Rooney and old rival First Lieutenant, the RSA Chase runner-up, cut out the pace. In the home straight First Lieutenant's bold bid included a tremendous leap at the third-last obstacle, but Bobs Worth had him covered by then and forged to the front before the final fence.
In the end, the final challenge came from the veteran top-weight Tidal Bay, but Bobs Worth's youth, class, stamina and 6lb pull were three-and-a-half lengths too good. First Lieutenant stayed on to claim third prize, in front of never-nearer The Package and Hold On Julio.
"He's not overly big, so you can't ask him too many questions through the race," said Geraghty of the horse he knows so well. "You have to just let him build and build. And by the time we got to the last, I knew I still had plenty of horse under me."
Henderson faced an anxious build-up, in terms of the condition of the ground and his charge. "It wasn't until I looked at him at evening stables on Wednesday that I thought he was ready," he said. "It was like a rose coming into bloom. He was thought to be the classiest young horse in the race and in a way he had to win it. But I am mighty relieved he has."
Bobs Worth, now as short as 7-2 for the Gold Cup, is unlikely to take in Boxing Day's King George VI Chase, for which his stablemate Long Run is favourite. "I don't think three miles round Kempton is for him," Henderson said. "From now on it's a matter of plotting a gentle path to Cheltenham, and one more run would probably do."
Geraghty paid €16,500 (£13,380) for Bobs Worth when he bought him, and resold him for £20,000 to carry the colours of a group of friends headed by Malcolm Kimmins. "Nicky robbed him off me," said the jockey with a smile, "but at least I get the bonuses by riding him." The son of Bob Back won £85,425 yesterday.
Tidal Bay's Paul Nicholls stablemate Big Buck's duly extended his winning streak to 18 in the Long Distance Hurdle, cruising home by nine lengths at 1-12 without Ruby Walsh having to engage third gear. The winner of a record four marathon crowns at the Festival, the nine-year-old is appreciated by public and professionals alike; as the runners returned to unsaddle Dougie Costello, the rider of runner-up Reve de Sivola, reached over to pat his neck. But touching the champ was probably not wholly consolation for Costello, on duty at Newbury as one of his regular mounts, Countrywide Flame, took the Grade One Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle under Denis O'Regan, turning over the odds-on Cinders And Ashes by 12 lengths and in the process galloping into Champion Hurdle contention.