Chris McGrath: Muirhead ripe to reward in post-Denman Hennessy
On the turf, as in a grape harvest, two ingredients are indispensable to any vintage year.
One is its own exceptional quality; the other is a reliable standard of mediocrity, against which it can be measured. For if they were all vintage years, none of them could be.
The Americans, for instance, find themselves thoroughly flummoxed by their nugatory options for Horse of the Year 2011. Some are even wondering whether the winners of the Kentucky Derby or Breeders' Cup Classic might be conscionably overlooked in favour of Rapid Redux, who plies his trade near the base of the sport's pyramid.
Rapid Redux has just won his 20th consecutive race, claiming outright a record previously shared with Peppers Pride and Zenyatta. Some are aggrieved that this distinction should be gained by a horse claimed for just $6,250 (£4,000) last year. But if they cannot give him credit for racking up 20 wins inside 12 months – he began the streak in early December – then they are hopelessly confused by their snobbery. Nobody pretends that Rapid Redux is better than Zenyatta. But she took four years to win 19 races and, whatever his other limitations, measured by soundness and resilience he is an authentic phenomenon.
Nor should anyone pass too harsh a judgement on what looks a rather plain Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury today. Three recent editions have been elevated to vintage status, more or less single-handed, by Denman. In 2007, he won off a handicap mark of 161; in 2009, he won off 174; and last year, he ran his heart out in third off 182. This time round, however, Paul Nicholls is holding him back for the Leopardstown Christmas meeting – and few among those seeking to fill the void have much pretension to meeting him in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup in March.
Perhaps the most eligible to do so is Michel Le Bon, one of three runners trained by Nicholls. While he clearly has more ability than his rating, too blind a leap of faith is required at the odds. He is making only his second start over fences – two years after his first, in which he saw off one other finisher. In any other hands, equally, Aiteen Thirtythree would surely not be so short in the betting after beating a grand total of four finishers in four steeplechases to date. Either could win, but neither could be said to represent obvious value.
Pick of the weights, on paper, is Great Endeavour under a 4lb penalty for his success at Cheltenham two weeks ago. But he must discover fresh reserves for this much stiffer test of stamina, after consuming plenty of petrol just a fortnight ago. With Beshabar perhaps most likely to peak at Aintree in the spring, pick of the prices might prove to be Muirhead (3.10) at 25-1.
It would be poignant if Noel Meade could win this race, 12 months after a fairly disastrous attempt with Pandorama. That horse subsequently confirmed himself top class, but is out for the season after finishing jarred up in the Gold Cup. Muirhead had seemed to be cut from very different cloth, fifth in the Champion Hurdle a couple of years ago, but opened up a new frontier when coasting home in his first start over three miles – and only fourth over fences – in the Munster National last month. A subsequent visit to Ascot proved rather a non-event, closing when he was badly hampered and eased. Off just 10st 4lb, and still unexposed both over this distance and in chases, he is a class horse in his prime.
In honesty, only the heritage of the race warrants top billing on a card that also includes the reappearance of a true champion in Big Buck's. Restored to timber by Nicholls after unseating his rider in the 2008 Hennessy – the one Denman missed – he is unbeaten in a dozen starts since. Big Buck's will duly start at microscopic odds for his third Sportingbet Long Distance Hurdle, but Sparky May is likely to give him a much more hostile reception than he has enjoyed in the past.
Some might even argue that the race of the day is the Stan James Fighting Fifth Hurdle, up at Newcastle, albeit Binocular has been beaten at similarly short odds in the past two runnings. Nicky Henderson, his trainer, reckons him "leaner and meaner" this time round, but Binocular will do well to reel in the voracious Overturn (2.20). Any normal horse would still be legless after a hugely generous effort at Ascot only last weekend, and nor has any horse previously added the course's jumping showpiece to Newcastle's biggest Flat prize, the Northumberland Plate. But the grapes need treading in both good years and bad, and there should always be a glass raised to those who do so as uncomplainingly as Overturn or Rapid Redux.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Minella Theatre (3.30 Newcastle)
Has failed to build on comeback wins in the last two seasons but has slipped to a very fair mark and can take advantage if again going well fresh for latest stable.
Coup Royale (3.45 Newbury)
Can give his trainer a hat-trick in this race, still unexposed and at the right end of the handicap despite a really impressive display in a first-time tongue-tie at Kempton in February.
One To Watch
How's My Friend (Grant Cann) looks fairly treated in handicaps and was thwarted only in a photo – and a rival whose jockey broke the whip rules – after travelling strongly at Taunton on Thursday.
Where the money's going
Michel Le Bon is 7-1 from 8-1 with Betfred for the Hennessy at Newbury today.
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