The search is on for a new superstar staying chaser and the Hennessy Gold Cup – with its roll call of famous champions going back even before Arkle won it for the first time half a century ago – is as good a place as any to start looking.
Nothing has really come up to scratch since Denman and Kauto Star retired; indeed, when three outsiders fought out the finish of the Cheltenham Gold Cup last March the void seemed further than ever from being filled.
The most likely area to find a replacement is among those who shone as novices last season, a group that this year includes Djakadam, Smad Place and Many Clouds, by no coincidence the first three in the betting for the Newbury contest on Saturday.
There is a suspicion, however, that this winter’s crop of second-season staying chasers is unexceptional. Smad Place’s credentials are solid enough – he almost won the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March and if there is a future champion in this afternoon’s Newbury line-up, it is most likely to be Alan King’s grey.
But the reputations of the other two are based largely on what might have happened had they not taken Festival falls rather than what they have actually achieved, a point acknowledged by Ruby Walsh, who partners Djakadam, at five years of age attempting to become the youngest ever winner of the race.
“We’re guessing,” he said of the Willie Mullins-trained challenger. “We’re hoping he’s well handicapped, but he hasn’t done anything to deserve a higher mark.”
Djakadam is also stepping up considerably in distance and, though his pedigree suggests he will stay, it is another question mark against such a heavily backed favourite.
The Druids Nephew is in his third season over fences and, having spurned more than one chance to win a big prize, it is fair to wonder whether he has missed the boat.
Perhaps not. His near miss at Cheltenham a fortnight ago, on his second start for Neil Mulholland’s yard, was a career best and also revealed reserves of stamina that will now stand him in good stead. He is officially well in at the weights, too, having been raised 6lb for future races.
The Druids Nephew (3.00 Newbury) is also being lined up for the Welsh Grand National, but a pleasing work-out last Tuesday convinced Mulholland that he should go to Newbury first. “He’s got a nice racing weight and he’s in good form. I’m very happy with him,” the trainer said.
What glorious compensation this would be for Mulholland, who hit the headlines for the wrong reasons earlier this month when the Wincanton winner The Young Master was subsequently disqualified for being ineligible to take part in the race. That huge setback aside, the young trainer has been doing enough right this season to have passed his previous best tally of winners already.
More Of That (2.25 Newbury), the undisputed leading staying hurdler, looks to have a straightforward task under the fit-again Tony McCoy as he begins the defence of his title, but it is nothing like as clear cut up north in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, where Irving, Arctic Fire and Aurore D’Estruval (2.05 Newcastle) audition to become more than just Champion Hurdle bit-part players.
There is little between the trio on paper, but the way Aurore D’Estruval went about her business on her Wetherby return was particularly striking and it would be no great surprise if she improved upon trainer John Quinn’s fine recent record in this prestigious event.
The career stats for Hey Big Spender (2.40 Newcastle) suggests he is at his best when able to bully inferior rivals and he is afforded that opportunity again in a race he has already won twice.
The Hennessy Gold Cup Chase is live on Channel 4 Racing todayReuse content