Newbury’s Hennessy Gold Cup meeting opens on Thursday with the unusual spectacle these days, when Saturdays have long since commandeered almost all worthwhile jumps races on the way to the Festival, of an informative contest that has moved in the opposite direction.
The Listed Gerry Feilden Hurdle was run on Hennessy day as recently as two years ago, when it was won by that season’s Champion Hurdle winner, Rock On Ruby.
The weights are headed today on Thursday by the Oliver Sherwood-trained Puffin Billy, who remains in Berkshire rather than make the trip to Newcastle on Saturday for the Grade One Fighting Fifth Hurdle. The five-year-old won his first four starts in his inaugural campaign but endured a spring of underachievement.
He finished lame when runner-up to the smart Melodic Rendezvous at Exeter before blundering away his chances when going well two out in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and again being reported lame after a tame fifth at the same course in April.
Sherwood plainly senses an opportunity to get his charge’s career back on track in the eight-runner contest. “We expected a hot little race for the money but I’m surprised so many have dropped out, to be honest,” he said. “For a race of this nature eight runners is a pretty small field – it’s usually double figures. They are all entitled to be there, though.
“It will be good to get him going. I went to Newbury to walk the track on Tuesday and I think it will be dead, tiring ground, but we won’t be using that as an excuse. He’s schooled great, his jumping has really come on.”
Puffin Billy has to give 3lb to Nicky Henderson’s Chatterbox, who upstaged his stablemate My Tent Or Yours – installed as odds-on favourite for the Fighting Fifth Hurdle – over this course and distance 11 months ago and finished a creditable fourth to this season’s Champion Hurdle favourite The New One at the Festival. At the bottom of the handicap is the J P McManus-owned Get Back In Line, in a similar mould to the same connections’ recent Haydock winner More Of That
At Thurles in Ireland, the French Grade One winner Rubi Ball makes his debut for Willie Mullins in the Rock of Cashel Hurdle. The eight-year-old, who won 16 of his 39 starts for Jacques Ortet, including the Prix la Haye Jousselin at Auteuil, is favoured by the weights .