Nicky Henderson describes the Betfair Hurdle as “legendary” and it is easy to see why he has such a soft spot for a race, run at his local track Newbury, he has won five times.
But they are also quite fond of this famous old handicap down West Sussex way. Ryan Price won four of the first five runnings when it was introduced as the Schweppes Gold Trophy in the Sixties and more recently Gary Moore, who trains just 20 minutes up the road from the five-time champion trainer’s old Findon base, plundered the valuable prize with Heatchcote (2007) and Wingman (2008) and now saddles another live outsider, Violet Dancer.
Moore’s main job today will be supervising the return of Sire De Grugy (3.00 Newbury), with racegoers eager to discover whether last season’s two-mile Champion Chase winner still has what it takes following 287 days on the sidelines and just a month or so ahead of his much anticipated meeting with the previous winner of that contest, Sprinter Sacre, at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
Sire De Grugy’s setback was nothing like as serious as Sprinter Sacre’s and he is likely to be in good enough shape to handle Uxizandre and Mr Mole in the Game Spirit Chase, although Moore predicts there will be something left to work on.
“Everything’s good, I’ve got no worries,” said Moore yesterday. “He should be good enough to win. If he doesn’t, he shouldn’t be going to Cheltenham.”
The five-year-old Violet Dancer (3.35 Newbury) has age on his side – the last eight winners of the Betfair Hurdle have been either five or six – but otherwise he is not an obvious candidate for this prestigious contest, with punters instead latching on to Paul Nicholls’ Champion Hurdle entry Calipto, Harry Fry’s Ladbroke Hurdle third Activial, Dan Skelton’s hat-trick-seeking Fascino Rustico, and Henderson’s top weight Sign Of A Victory.
Calipto, a leading juvenile last season, reminds Nicholls a lot of Zarkandar, who won this event in 2012 before going on to better things.
But, as Moore’s winners have demonstrated, this race does not serve only as a stepping stone to the top; it is also a feasible target for tough, well-handicapped lesser lights and in this regard one can make a solid each-way case for Violet Dancer on the pick of his winter form, a highly commendable Newbury third behind two rapid improvers.
Some of the best fencers of recent years have won the Denman Chase – Silviniaco Conti, Long Run, Kauto Star and Denman himself – and it is asking an awful lot of the novice Coneygree, impressive though he has been on his two starts over fences, to add his name to that illustrious list this afternoon.
A bold showing from this exuberant front-runner is pretty much assured, but Houblon Des Obeaux (2.25 Newbury), another stayer on the fringe of Cheltenham Gold Cup class and encountering his ideal conditions, may prove too strong on this occasion.
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