A roll call of the early winners of the Hennessy Gold Cup reads like a Who’s Who of steeplechasing legends: Mandarin, Taxidermist, Stalbridge Colonist, Mill House and, of course, Arkle, who twice made light of 12st 7lb in the mid-Sixties.
And still, even with valuable alternative targets in the autumn programme, this is the race for rising staying chasers. Last year’s winner, Bobs Worth, went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, after proving a leading novice the previous season.
More often than not these days, the Hennessy is won by a young horse on the up; all but four of this afternoon’s 21 runners at Newbury are either six- or seven-year-olds and the vast majority of them are second-season chasers.
The trend is bucked occasionally – in recent years by the tank that was Denman and by the tough-as-old-boots Carruthers – providing hope to the small band of oldies, which includes the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Imperial Commander, who his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, insists is still a long way from requiring a bus pass, though rising 13.
Lord Windermere, the winner of last season’s RSA Chase at Cheltenham, would appear to boast a perfect profile. Jim Culloty, his trainer, who is most famous for riding Best Mate to three Gold Cup triumphs, is extremely bullish about his chances and no less confident after an enforced late jockey change – Dougie Costello deputises for Robbie McNamara, who broke a collarbone yesterday morning.
But while the statistic that no Irish-trained horse has won the Hennessy for 33 years might have limited relevance, the ratings-based observation that the most recent RSA Chase was slightly substandard does carry weight.
Rocky Creek also appears to fit the Hennessy bill and is understandably among the market leaders in what is always a furious betting heat. With one eye already on this race, his trainer, Paul Nicholls, opted to swerve Cheltenham last March and that resistance to temptation might now be rewarded.
But better value may lie further down the handicap in Merry King (3.00 Newbury), who will be attempting to give trainer Jonjo O’Neill and rider Richie McLernon their second major November prize following the success of Johns Spirit in the Paddy Power Chase.
Merry King is a stamina-laden version of Johns Spirit, now ready to show what he is really made of after displaying abundant promise on carefully chosen missions. Match-fit following an encouraging return at Ascot a month ago, he is set for his breakthrough into the big time.
Last year’s top staying novice hurdler, At Fishers Cross (2.25 Newbury), is generally regarded as heir apparent to the sidelined Big Buck’s, but we will know how serious that challenge is after he has taken on a small but select field in the Long Distance Hurdle.
Mischievous Milly (1.50 Newbury) showed enough on her recent return to action to suggest she will be hard to beat in the opener, while the unexposed Filbert (3.35 Newbury) will also be sharper for his comeback outing at Ascot earlier this month and is preferred to Tetlami in the two-mile handicap chase.
My Tent Or Yours (2.05 Newcastle) and Tony McCoy are the star attractions at Gosforth Park and nothing less than a victory in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle will satisfy connections with eyes already fixed on the Champion Hurdle in March.
Nicky Henderson’s six-year-old will not be much of a price, but a few quid on Sue Smith’s progressive chaser, Vintage Star (2.40 Newcastle) in the Rehearsal Chase should net a decent return.
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