The setting may change, increasingly enclosed by housing, but the ambience of Hennessy day at Newbury will endure so long as other familiarities abide. For one thing, the oldest sponsorship of its kind ensures that the big race still rolls warmly across the tongue; and it remains a cherished staging post in the calendar of a professional community readying itself for the attrition of midwinter. Above all, it continues to confer due distinction upon the old-fashioned stamp of steeplechaser, the big and the bold, who relish the demands of three and a quarter miles through the mud on a galloping track.
The endeavours of Denman, both in victory and defeat, have preserved a vintage feel in the modern Hennessy, evoking the great names that decorated early runnings: Mandarin twice, Arkle himself twice, Mill House. In the early 1980s it was consecutively blessed by Bregawn, Brown Chamberlin and Burrough Hill Lad. Then came Galway Blaze, a personal favourite, trained by the artful Jimmy FitzGerald: a horse chronically prone to lameness, even on the morning of the race, he had been put right with a spin round Market Rasen just a week previously, and bolted up off 10st.
The next two runnings were won by a journeyman jockey named Paul Nicholls, who weighed in rather more comfortably as trainer of Denman. Even the success of Carruthers was suffused with nostalgia – no less so, of course, now that friends of his owner-breeder, Lord Oaksey, reflect on his loss in the year since.
It would be gratifying, then, if today's running could further enrich that tapestry. For now, however, punters can appraise the race only as a devilish challenge. And most will begin their deliberations with the value, or otherwise, in a favourite fittingly christened Bobs Worth.
As an RSA Chase winner starting out off a mark of 160, he has an obvious chance of beginning his quest for a third Cheltenham Festival success by outclassing rivals with little pretension, between them, to Gold Cup calibre. But the very fact that this is only his fifth chase cuts both ways: it represents a different type of test, on different ground.
Nicholls returns with another class act in Tidal Bay, better than ever since his arrival at Ditcheat and respected in a race likely to be run very much to his taste. Even by the standards of the champion trainer, however, it would be remarkable if Tidal Bay could raise his game to fresh heights – 12lb higher than when routing a lesser field at Sandown in May – as he approaches his 12th birthday.
Curiously, no Irish horse has won the Hennessy since 1980, the curse having extended to the disqualification of Be My Royal 10 years ago. It is high time that aberration was redressed, and both the Gigginstown Stud raiders today appeal as good value. First Lieutenant is admittedly allowed only 1lb for a fairly comfortable beating by Bobs Worth at Cheltenham, and is reckoned better on spring ground. But he has a fitness advantage, and it is always unnerving to oppose a horse primed by the masterly Mouse Morris.
It would be no less gratifying, however, to see Dessie Hughes end the Irish drought – and 16-1 is an appealing price against Magnanimity (3.10). Himself beaten only narrowly in the RSA Chase, in his novice year, he rather lost his way last season, but none the less caught the eye travelling very strongly for a long way in his first handicap, at the Festival. He did not come up the hill, for one reason or another, but returns 1lb lower – off just 143 – and an excellent conditional rider brings his weight down to the very basement. His stable has been in top form this autumn and, having shaped well enough in two spins in good company, he is fitted with cheekpieces in what looks a purposeful change of headgear.
The one horse at Newbury today who plainly warrants a place along the epoch-making names listed above is Big Buck's, who has an elementary task to extend his unbeaten spree to 18 in the Sportingbet Long Distance Hurdle. Things look more competitive for Ardlui (2.35), but he is ahead of the game judged on Flat form, while Renard (3.40) can maintain his yard's good run.
The poor conditions have depleted the Stan James Fighting Fifth Hurdle up at Newcastle, though it is good to welcome back two of the North's Festival winners in Countrywide Flame and Cinders And Ashes (2.20).
Chris McGrath's nap
Miss Blakeney (6.50 Wolverhampton)
Mansonien L'As (12.35 Newcastle)