Some of the biggest guns in jump racing are about to be rolled into position, prompting both apprehension and excitement among the top brass. In Britain, five-star generals such as Paul Nicholls know that the course of their campaigns could be largely determined by events at Newbury over the next three afternoons, and Newcastle on Saturday; while the stakes will be correspondingly high, over in Ireland, when Dunguib tops the bill at Fairyhouse on Sunday.
Admittedly, the Hennessy meeting – or Newbury Winter Festival, as we are now supposed to call it – has a low-key start, with only four horses contesting the day's biggest prize. Unsurprisingly, the most interesting of them is stabled with the champion trainer. Michel Le Bon has long promised to come into his own over fences, and should duly narrow the gap in the GPG Novices' Chase with Pettifour – a superior hurdler but not terribly convincing on his own chasing debut, again in a small field, at Cheltenham 12 days ago.
Nicholls, so relieved to see Kauto Star win that photo at Haydock last weekend, wheels out his other Gold Cup winner in the Hennessy itself on Saturday. In both style and substance, Denman represents heavy artillery in a pretty literal sense, and yesterday his part-owner, Harry Findlay, was sounding optimistic that he might find an immediate range. Nicholls himself has cautioned that Denman, under top weight, will probably be running for "fourth or fifth", preferring the claims of What A Friend. But in his own professional judgement, as a gambler, Findlay feels that Denman's task might have been overstated.
"People keep telling me it's the best Hennessy in years," Findlay said. "But I'm not quite so sure. To my eye, What A Friend looks more of a hurdler-chaser than a chaser, and I think that type of horses can get caught out in this race. Carruthers is better going the other way round, and I don't think Barbers Shop will stay up the straight – I don't think he'll stick it. So to me, in terms of opposition, I have to say that Denman – if he is back – would have to be a major contender. But all due respect to Paul. I can see where he's coming from, and perhaps he's training him to win the Gold Cup. Nothing Denman might do would surprise me. He's impossible to price up. But we'll know soon enough on Saturday. After six fences, he'll either be 6-4 or 20-1."
This uncertainty can be condensed by comparing Denman this time last year, when recuperating from a cardiac problem, and Denman two years ago, when he romped away with the Hennessy as an emerging champion. But Findlay insists the camp has no regrets over the way they were seduced into running at Aintree, where he fell heavily, following his sudden revival behind Kauto Star in the Gold Cup.
"Far from it," he said. "Once he'd run so well at Cheltenham, and come out of the race so well, he had to go. I was looking at it again the other day and in my opinion he would have won, anyway, had he not come down – just knowing his personality, and seeing how he'd struggled through the race, and the fact he was still level. So no regrets, or at least not once he'd stood up. Life's too short for regrets."
Incidentally Findlay – who has greatly expanded his string, both on the Flat and over jumps – had no hesitation when asked to suggest another name to watch this winter. "Beshabar," he said. "A great big chestnut I bought off Nick Williams, who won the big novices' handicap at Sandown. I'm really looking forward to seeing his first chase at Chepstow on Saturday week. He's had a year out, but I think he'll be straight enough."
Another absence was prolonged yesterday when the scheduled chasing debut of Captain Cee Bee – who beat Binocular at the Festival in their novice season over timber – was washed out along with the rest of the card at Naas. Not that he is embracing a predictable discipline. Yesterday only three runners took part in a novice chase at Wetherby, but independent falls four out left the only one who had no chance, Passport Control, to finish alone.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Brimham Boy (2.30 Uttoxeter) Worth taking a chance that he handles this softer ground, so well did he shape on his first start for a flourishing yard – against a rival successful twice since – at Lingfield earlier this month.
Bennelong (7.30 Kempton) Did not progress during the summer but immediately promised better on his course-and-distance debut for Gary Moore, always going sweetly but short of room before flying home in second.
One to watch
Sumak (Ferdy Murphy) was ultimately beaten a long way in his third start over hurdles at Aintree on Sunday, but again showed ability and cannot be given too stiff a mark when turning to handicaps.
Where the money's going
Bellvano, a smart bumper horse with imminent entries over hurdles, was widely backed yesterday for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham in March – Totesport going 16-1 from 25-1.