The race will be this season’s first significant test of established chasers with the leading staying novices of last year. Long Run, 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner heads the cast, and Unioniste, Dynaste, Grands Crus and Benefficient will all appear in the lists when the entries are published later today.
Trainer Nicky Henderson was bullish about Long Run’s chances, saying the horse still had plenty of scope for improvement. He said, “He looks fantastic. He’s not getting old; he’s coming to his prime and can do some racing now. We’re thinking Wetherby, Haydock for the Betfair Chase, and then back to Kempton for the King George.”
Of the experienced horses, Cape Tribulation, fifth in the 2013 Gold Cup, could be his main challenger. His trainer, Malcolm Jefferson, welcomed the recent rain, saying of his nine year old, “He looks well and is in very good order. The ground should be bang on for everyone after this rain. After Wetherby, he'll get an entry in the Hennessy. He might be near top weight and while I'm not a fan of running horses in handicaps with top weight, there might be something rated 167 or 168 that could run. Hopefully we'll have another good year with him and he'll pick up a race somewhere along the line.”
Last year’s race winner, Silviniaco Conti won’t follow in the footsteps of Wayward Lad, Celtic Shot, Barton Bank, One Man, See More Business and Ollie Magern by scoring a second success, as his trainer Paul Nicholls relies on youngster Unioniste, seemingly without a deal of confidence. He said, “Unioniste runs. He’s well and ready for it, but he’s got to improve tremendously on what he’s done up to now. It’s a starting point for him.” The race is a tough one for five year olds; the last one to win the race was Righthand Man back in 1982.
Kim Bailey’s six-year-old Harry Topper won his first three races last season, including a Grade 2 at Newbury, but the wheels came off when he went to Kelso at the beginning of March. He was racing wide of the other horses when he clouted the ninth fence and unseated Timmy Murphy. That was his own mistake, but in his final race of the season, at Punchestown, Harry Topper was badly hampered by a faller and brought down. It leaves him with plenty to prove, as Bailey acknowledged.
He said, “He did well over the summer and I am very happy with him. He had a good season really, but it just ended slightly disappointingly when he unseated and was brought down. Other than that, I was very happy with it. We are still on a learning curve with him because he is only a six-year-old and still has a long way to go yet. If Long Run turns up, then I don’t suppose we will beat him because if we did we would be favourite for the Gold Cup and I don’t expect that. We will play it by ear and see what he comes up with at Wetherby, but he could be a Welsh National horse or he could be something else. I don’t know, but he has got to go and prove himself now.
I think slower ground helps him. All his form is on soft ground, so the softer the better really.”
David Pipe has yet to decide which of his pair, Dynaste and Grands Crus will represent him. He said either could run over hurdles as an alternative at any time during the season, though that approach was less likely for Dynaste.
If he does line up on Saturday, he’s also likely to have to deal with Benefficient, the horse that beat him in the Jewson at Cheltenham. He was declared a “strong possibility” for the race by trainer Tony Martin.
One definite absentee, partly because of the rain, is Grand National winner Auroras Encore. Trainer Sue Smith said, “I’m not going to put him in the race, I’m going to leave him a bit longer. He’s in good shape, but I don’t know when he is going to run. It is difficult with the way he is rated and I’m not in a hurry with him because going back to Aintree is the main aim. He is 11 years old and we have got to look after him. He doesn’t love the very soft ground so I’m just going to play it by ear with him.”
Last year just six runners contested the Charlie Hall Chase. Five of them went on to run at the Cheltenham Festival, though none of them managed to make the frame in the two races there they ran in; the Gold cup and the JLT Speciality Handicap Chase. With the potential runners on Saturday, I think that might be a different story next March.