Given the number of conspiracy theorists apparently out there, Paul Nicholls has surely made a bold call in tipping against the favourite for Saturday's Hennessy Gold Cup, his own charge Denman. As he did when he won the Newbury handicap showpiece two years ago, the nine-year-old will carry top-weight of 11st 12lb but, as his trainer level-headedly pointed out yesterday, circumstances have markedly changed.
Then, the gelding was a young rising star. Now, with the 2008 Gold Cup on his CV, he is a proven senior elite performer, but one trying to regain his status after a campaign compromised by well-documented health issues. "He's in great form," Nicholls said, "twice the horse he was last season and we're looking forward to running. And if he performs like he did in last year's Gold Cup then he's got a great chance.
"But you have to remember that when he won the Hennessy he was well-handicapped. He's much higher in the ratings now and my feeling – and of course I may be wrong – is that he will run a sound race on Saturday to finish fourth or fifth."
After Denman's stable-mate Kauto Star held Imperial Commander off by a whisker at Haydock on Saturday, it was as if the doors of the asylum had opened on various internet chatrooms, such was the extraordinary questioning of not only the result (despite incontrovertible photographic evidence that it was the correct one) but also the motives in giving it. Should Denman, or even either of the other Manor Farm runners What A Friend or My Will, prevail this week, it will be standing room only on the grassy knoll.
Denman, whose No 1 saddlecloth keeps most of his potential rivals relatively low in the weights, is generally 4-1 for the Hennessy. What A Friend, due to shoulder just 10st 4lb, is disputing being second favourite at 6-1 with another seasonal debutant, Barbers Shop, sporting cheekpieces for the first time. My Will, runner-up at Down Royal earlier in the month, is a 33-1 shot.
"We have thought since the end of last season that this would be the race for What A Friend," Nicholls added. "We backed him at 12-1 the other week and he was a good bet then. He goes well fresh, is in really good order at the moment and won on soft ground first time up last year. But if it keeps raining, the ground will be against My Will."
Kauto Star's victory came after defeat for another of his celebrity comrades-in-arms, Master Minded, and the Somerset yard's rollercoaster dipped again with the news that the next journey for the two-mile champion will be to a Newmarket veterinary hospital tomorrow. The six-year-old, beaten on his return to action at Cheltenham, is to undergo a bone scan to determine if there is a physiological reason for that below-par run.
He will, as a consequence, miss his scheduled run in the Tingle Creek Chase on Saturday week and is now a drifting favourite for his third successive Champion Chase. The beneficiary of any absence is perceived as Irish-trained Big Zeb, who took him to a head at Punchestown in April, has replaced him as Sandown favourite and is threatening his market position for the Cheltenham title.
The pretender's trainer Colm Murphy was suitably sympathetic yesterday. "Obviously it's a blow to his connections," he said, "and I can only imagine what they are thinking right now, but he certainly wasn't the Master Minded we all know the last day."
After the heavy rains of the last few days there will be inspections this morning at both Chepstow and Naas, where the going is heavy. If the Co Kildare meeting goes ahead it will feature the eagerly-awaited return of Captain Cee Bee, who beat Binocular in the Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham last year but missed his next season through injury. He now emerges over fences.
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Wake Up Call (1.00 Lingfield) Well-regarded late starter who showed good tactical speed to get off the mark over today's trip on her third outing. She is still on an upward learning curve and her mark for her first handicap venture looks fair.
Aeroplane (1.30 Lingfield) Has a huge amount in hand over his rivals on the ratings and has won over course and distance, though a short price will reflect all his advantages.
One to watch
Once a smart staying hurdler, Royal Rosa (H Johnson) is getting his chasing career over fences back on track after missing a season. Coped well with his first try over the Grand National fences when staying on for third place in Sunday's Becher Chase at Aintree.
Where the money's going
State Of Play, winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup in 2006, was backed for a repeat on Saturday from 33-1 to 20-1 with Victor Chandler.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Loom (1.40 Chepstow)