The Hennessy Gold Cup Chase is one of the top National Hunt prizes up for grabs this side of the Christmas turkey, and the 2012 renewal looks to have all the makings of an engaging renewal.
But the Hennessy is merely the juicy meat on a racing plate adorned with a number of appetizing side dishes. If that metaphor hasn't made you nauseous, so hammed up was it (pun intended), then read on for my take on Saturday's Newbury menu.
12.15 SPORTINGBET AMATEUR RIDERS´ HANDICAP CHASE (CLASS 3)
The hors d'oevre is an amateur rider affair which, in truth, is not something which ever gets me excited from a punting perspective. Perfectly entertaining, of course, with so many Mr's and Mrs's variously doing the washing up; hailing their butlers; knitting cardigans; and so on, as their horses attempt desperately to make up for the shortcomings of the pilots.
In fairness, in the short history of this race (just five years), it has been punter-friendly, with all five winners returning at a single figure price.
Three of the five winners were ridden on, or close to, the pace, and that seems a sensible strategy in a race where jumping errors are likely to abound. One who tends to be ridden prominently, is in good form, has an eminently feasible handicap mark, stays the trip and goes in the ground is Present To You, who also happens to be a David Bridgwater handicapper (see this report I wrote recently).
Present To You has won on good and soft, and been placed on good to soft. If you take out his penultimate run, when the ground was almost certainly too quick for him (good to firm), he's been in the frame in his last seven starts.
A win last time over three and a half miles of Stratford's soft turf imply that the trip will be close to optimal, and whilst this is a small step up in class, I would think he'll go well, as a sound jumper (twenty runs in steeplchases or point to points, no falls).
There are dangers of course, and the top one, Hunters Lodge is in form and goes from the front. He's also won for today's jockey, Mr Hatch. But weight stops trains, as they say, and he's got all of it here in a race which has been won by those with less of it. None of that means he can't win, but I suspect he'll be a shorter price than he necessarily ought to be, and I'd prefer to side with the Bridgy runner.
I do of course need to mention Rey Nacarado, who is two from two round here, both over course and distance. He has plenty of weight, and Miss V Hart rides him for the first time in public, but he's only two pounds higher than his last win, and is sure to have come on for his seasonal debut, a decent little race in which he was third. Definite chance.
Each Way Selection: Present To You
Obvious Chances: Rey Nacarado, Hunters Lodge
12.50 THOROUGHBRED BREEDERS´ ASSOCIATION MARES´ NOVICES´ HURDLE (LISTED RACE)
A very interesting little mares' race, and one in which I declare allegiance to Anthony Honeyball's Eleven Fifty Nine. She was just beaten last time by re-opposing Call Me A Star, and the trainer told me after that he wished he'd not run against that one on her first hurdle start, and that he'd fancy her to beat that one when they next crossed hooves.
He's a fair judge, and I respect that opinion.
Although there are just the six runners, it's far from a match at the top of the market, with both She Ranks Me and Ma Filleulle holding valid prospects.
She Ranks Me is far and away the most experienced in the field, and as a consequence has the least improvement to offer in a race where the winner will likely improve past the current level of known form. As such, I'll pass her over, though she's a credit to connections.
Ma Filleulle is having her second hurdle run since switching from France to Nicky Henderson's Seven Barrows stable. She lagged up in a nothing race on her UK initiation, and has already got five chase starts to her name! It's impossible to know how good she is and, despite further improvement likely from the Hendo switch, I'm inclined to side with the first named re-opposing duo.
Call Me A Star is very well named, as she's not been out of the first two in five runs, four in bumpers and that hurdles verdict over Eleven Fifty Nine. She was good enough to win a Listed bumper at Sandown and was second in the big Aintree mares' bumper, and she looks sure to go well again here.
But that second place in the big Aintree mares' bumper was behind... you guessed it, Eleven Fifty Nine and, with the score 2-1 to Call Me A Star (11:59 was third in the Sandown bumper won by CMAS), there is all to play for here.
Selection: Eleven Fifty Nine
Alternative: Call Me A Star
1.25 NOVICES´ HANDICAP CHASE (FOR THE FULKE WALWYN TROPHY) (CLASS 3)
Twenty-two soft ground furlongs and seventeen fences separate these sixteen novices from the jam stick and the honey pot, and it's a brave fellow who goes 'all in' in a contest like this.
Adding a shade of illustration to that point is the fact that none of the five renewals have gone to the market leader, and the average payoff has been more than 11/1.
As with many novice handicap chases, it generally pays to look towards the higher weighted - and therefore better - horses, and that's my route in here.
Hey Big Spender won this off top weight in 2009, and Benheir bids to do likewise this term. He's likely to be up with the pace throughout, which ought to eliminate hard luck stories, and his win over fences at the third time of asking was a nice confidence booster. But he's looked a bit weak in a finish to my eye, and with the weight concessions to all here, my quest for a wager is ongoing.
Paul Nicholls' Rolling Aces is next in the weights, and this chap has a special place in geegeez folklore. You see, he was the first ever Stat of the Day, and a winner that day to boot!
Since then, he's run largely with credit, but entirely without winning. This will be only Rolling Aces' second chase start under rules, and the longer trip here - after a running on third on his first try - will be ideal. He has a serious chance.
Merry King has won three times under rules, all of them for his pilot here, Richie McLernon, and that despite a certain Mr McCoy having ridden him on four occasions. He won nicely on his handicap chase bow last time, but this is a big step up and I think he'll find it much harder to boss these chaps about.
Sir Kezbaah was about the pick of these over hurdles: he was rated as high as 143 at his peak, and he made a pleasing enough introduction to fences when finishing fourth in a nice looking Exeter novice chase. The trip might just be a bit on the sharp side for him though, and the ground a bit on the easy side. I'm sure this boyo will win a nice race before the season's out, however.
One which will love the ground is Global Power, from the resurgent Oliver Sherwood yard. A win strike rate this season of 21% is tasty, and with his horses mostly being sent off at decent odds, that's translated into a marginal level stakes profit at Betfair SP.
Global Power has three wins to his name: a bumper, a hurdle and a chase; and all three were on soft ground, today's underfoot. He's unbeaten over fences (one from one!), and ought to improve for his first run of the season. Each way chances.
Seven Woods is likely to take support in the market, based on his trainer (Hendo) and his proximity to the smart Houblon des Obeaux on fencing debut. But it's my contention that he was flattered by the sixteen length margin to HdO and I'll let him beat me if he proves up to the task.
I can't really see any of the lighter weight brigade winning, and I suspect it's between those mentioned above.
Tentative selection: Rolling Aces
Alternative: Global Power
2.00 SPORTINGBET LONG DISTANCE HURDLE GRADE 2 (CLASS 1)
If the sponsors are disappointed with the quantity of runners for this Grade 2 contest, they must be delighted with the quality. The highest rated hurdler in training, Big Buck's, opens his seasonal account here for the fourth consecutive year.
He's seventeen unbeaten, and it's very hard to envisage - still less to wish - him losing.
There's not really much else to say, except that this is very much a race to watch, and to cheer a proper National Hunt hero horse, wagering not required.
Selection: Big Buck's (duh!)
2.35 SPORTINGBET HANDICAP HURDLE (CLASS 2)
A good looking handicap hurdle here, and a field of ten take to post. Soft ground form might be a key component of the winner's make up, as this is sure to be a good test over an intermediate distance.
One that looks tailor made for the job is Princely Player, from the Philip Hobbs team. This chap was second in a Listed novices' hurdle last time out on good ground around Kempton's flat oval. The time before, he'd taken on nineteen furlongs of Exeter's sodden turf: pretty similar to nineteen furlongs of Newbury's sodden turf, except that they go the other way around. The Player emerged victorious that last soft day, and he's a player again here.
Further down the handicap, Paul Nicholls unleashes another of his endless horde of tip top timber-toppers in the shape of Salubrious, a close up fourth in the two and a half mile Grade 3 Tote Silver Trophy handicap hurdle last time. He's off the same mark of 129 here and, if the slightly softer ground ekes out a few lengths improvement, he'll go close.
Beneath him, Ardlui looks like a proper tease to me. He's a soft ground horse through and through. A two mile winner on the level at Newmarket last time out - on soft - is joined by a win over hurdles the only time he's encountered soft in that sphere. Clearly, he needs to improve on what he's done to date, but coming here in form and unexposed over hurdles gives every chance that he will.
Kingcora, if fit enough on his first start for a year; Scots Gaelic, and At Fishers Cross, also have decent chances.
Selection: Princely Player
3.10 HENNESSY GOLD CUP CHASE (HANDICAP) GRADE 3 (CLASS 1)
The big one. A proper race. A race won by some real star names down the years, and some real favourites too. Double Denman delight was added to by hugely popular triumphs from Diamond Harry and Carruthers in the last five years alone, and casting the eye further back through the archives, there's the charge of the dashing greys: Teeton Mill, One Man. And that all many years after the formative renewals gave us such illustrious alumni as Mandarin, Mill House and Arkle himself.
Yep, this is a proper race won by proper horses. And this year, as with all years, it will be a proper test.
There are stats aplenty, and those which I consider to be pertinent I've alluded to below.
Twelve of the last fifteen winners finished in the top three last time out. Another two failed to complete. Horses who finished, but missed the podium, will find it hard to get onto my ticket.
Diamond Edge, in 1981, was the last horse older than nine to win this. Before him, only mighty Mandarin and Rondetto could match that feat. Three double-digit aged winners since its inauguration in 1957 is a measly return, and must count against Tidal Bay, Roberto Goldback and Lion Na Bearnai, irrespective of any hope the form book proffers.
Indeed, six- to eight-year-olds have won twenty of the last 23 runnings of the Hennessy, and that looks an eminently sensible range in which to focus.
Yes, weight stops trains, as the hackneyed (often by me) old cliché goes. But there has been a strange trend in this race in recent years for the better horses (identified by them lugging more lead) prevailing. Eight of the last eleven winners carried at least ten stone twelve pounds, notwithstanding that the last two Hennessy Gold Cups were snaffled by lower weighted horses.
Look more closely at that, mind, and you'll see that when Diamond Harry carried ten stone to victory, it was because Denman - then rated 182 - was stopping all but four of the other seventeen runners from racing in the handicap proper. [Incidentally, that magnificent Denman finished third under his knee-knocking burden].
To put that into context, if Denman was in the race this year off 182, Tidal Bay would be next in off 10-08 and all bar the top quartet in the weights would be out of the handicap. Good old Denman.
So, I'm inclined to say that 10-12 is a reasonable cut-off from a class perspective, with no such hugely rated beast in the contest. Moreover, it's seven years since a horse rated shy of 145 bagged this, and I'd imagine in a few days time, we'll be saying it's eight years since.
Six of the last fifteen winners were making their seasonal bow, and a further eight had raced within the last month. Only one winner fell within that no man's land of summer jumping/early season debut; and none had triumphed after more than a year off the track.
Those then are the parameters within which my wagering cloth will be cut. And it sets the confines of punting options fairly specifically too. In essence, I'm looking for a young horse at the top of the handicap.
If I let Hold On Julio beat me, which I will if he's good enough, I have just Bobs Worth and First Lieutenant on my side. Their form is joined at the hip through the RSA Chase, where Bobs wrested first from First by a couple of lengths around Cheltenham's gruelling fields of glory.
A literal interpretation then leaves nothing between them, meaning that getting thrice the price on the Lieutenant stands out to a bargain hunter like your humble scribbler. Now it's true that FL does have something of a frustrating habit of taking a minor medal. But he's plenty of form on soft ground, whereas Bobs Worth has never raced on slower than good to soft.
That is not to say, of course, that Bobs won't go on the ground: merely that you'd be taking a chance that he will. And 4/1 doesn't allow for too much latitude on such a score, even before we've considered how match fit he is and how much of an appetite for a potential season-buggering scrap connections will have.
Some might argue that FL hasn't won over this sort of trip, but that's a redundant line of enquiry in my book, on the basis that he's beaten all bar Bobs in the RSA over three and a bit miles of a tougher terrain than Newbury's. Moreover, he's 'silvered' twice more in Grade 1 company over three miles, at Down Royal last time out and at Leopardstown. Yes, this is a bit further, but I doubt it will be non-staying that does for him.
No, First Lieutenant looks like the value call to me, seconditis or not.
If we don't take the First Left, then which direction might lead us to a stats-busting winner?
Well, I'd be siding with a horse with a touch of class, which maybe has hidden its formerly lustrous light under a bushel recently. Step forward, 2010 winner, Diamond Harry.
Harry loves, loves, loves it round here. A track record of 111311 says much and, when you consider the 3 was when trying to lower Big Buck's' colours (careless? Reckless? You decide), and only failing by six lengths, it's easy to get excited by his chance.
Even more so when you look at Harry's boggy ground form. On going soft or softer, his form figures read 1111131. We know all about the 3 from that last para, so why oh why is our 'Arry a 25/1 poke?!
The answer is simple, and in two parts. Firstly, and crucially, his last three form figures are all letters, rather than numbers. Indeed, they're all P's, a form figure which is almost universally disliked amongst punters (and, normally, for good reason).
Secondly, I believe this price highlights the chronic almost omnipresent recency bias in bookmakers' odds. Now, don't get me wrong, bookies make markets and react to punter preferences. That's how it must be.
But fielding against recency bias may be the last great bastion of generally available value in horse racing betting. Quite simply, Diamond Harry should be no bigger than 14/1 or thereabouts.
Yes, he's been poor in his last three runs, two of them in Grade 1 chases (the feature chases at Cheltenham's and Aintree's spring Festivals no less), and the last after seven months off the track, and all on quicker than ideal ground. And yes, before that, he was 'only' fifth in a Grade 2 at Cheltenham.
But his Cheltenham record of 113P5P is not his Newbury record of 111311.
Let me put it another way. If you were looking at his past performances page, without recourse to that stupid misleading string of digits next to the horse's name in the paper; if you were looking at his preferences instead of his price; could you possibly make him a 25/1 shot?
If you could, then you'll not be backing him, and fair enough. Otherwise, shouldn't you at least have a throwaway saver on Harry, 'just in case'?
There's no doubt that he might be 'gone at the game', and it's something of a binary bet, inasmuch as he'll probably either win or pull up. But at 25/1, we can afford to be speculative where we can't at 4/1.
Enough of Harry, Diamond that he is. What of the rest?
Well, in my view, The Package had a hard enough race three weeks ago and might not want it too soft; Frisco Depot is a dodgy jumper with a League One (relatively) jockey; Harry The Viking surely wants it quicker; Soll is taking a massive step up in class, but could surprise; Alfie Spinner will do extremely well to repel all from the front here; and Saint Are wouldn't want the mud.
One other worth a mention is Magnanimity, a horse which has cost me plenty down the years. He loves it soft, he stays and he has a feather weight. I won't be backing him, but he has a slightly better chance than his odds imply, to my eye at least.
Selection: First Lieutenant e/w
Best Outsider: Diamond Harry
Dangers: Bobs Worth, Magnanimity
3.40 SPORTINGBET HANDICAP CHASE (FOR THE JIM JOEL MEMORIAL TROPHY) (CLASS 2)
And the lucky last is upon us. As trappy as you'd expect, there are fifteen scheduled to start, adding further salt to what may be punters' weeping wounds as there will be but three places on which to recoup invested funds. We're racing over the extended two miles this time and it's going to be soft underfoot.
Recent history has a score card of Nicholls 3, Hendo 2, Venetia 2. Although 'The Chemist' swerves the race this time, the Denizen of Ditcheat and Lady Venetia are represented by Ulck du Lin and Renard respectively. Both are of immediate interest.
The former is dropping back in trip after palpably not staying last time. He tried this trip before, albeit fading up Sandown's stiff uphill finish, and this track looks likely to give him a better chance of lasting to the lollipop. He's very much the young man of the party at just four, and has a commensurately light weight to carry.
Ulck du Lin is bound to get stronger over time, and has had a good rest since that last effort. I'd think he'll be thereabouts.
Renard made hay this time last year, starting from a very low base, and then paid for it as the handicapper showed no mercy with a rise from 109 to 144. His last win was off 135, and he's only four pounds higher here under optimal conditions - potential class question aside - and might be expected to give it a 'right good go'.
But... I have a niggling reservation about his ability to compete in a big field handicap. In previous British races of a dozen or more runners, he's got form of R45PP. Not for me on that basis.
Gus Macrae is the likely favourite, and that's fair enough. After all, he has won three of his last four, including a Listed handicap chase last time out. Trip, track and turf look fine too, and Patrick Corbett - aboard for the last two wins - claims his big ten pound allowance, bringing the horse down from a nicely weighted 11-03 to a very nicely weighted 10-07.
The fact that Gus seems to doss a little when he gets to the front means he doesn't win by far (five wins by an average of 3.4 lengths), which in turn means it's tough for the handicapper to fully assess the merit of his ability.
In short, he ticks a lot of boxes and the 4/1 available as I write is at least fair, and perhaps even mildly generous, in my opinion.
David Pipe won this in 2009 with Consigliere and my old mate turns up again here. He's starting to get expensive to follow, and it's a mug's methodology in any case, but I can't desert him just yet. The case for the defence is robust enough: flat track bully, seventeen furlongs on soft ground optimal, Class 2 his level. But he's probably still too high in the weights - four pounds more than his last win - and I'm sure the Pipe's will let us know, via a quick plummet in the odds, when his day is due.
I backed Consigliere the last day at Cheltenham and I backed Takeroc in the same race. This lad left the Paul Nicholls yard in May for 24,000 guineas, and has done nothing in two starts for Chris Gordon. But it may be too early to give up on him, and a soft ground extended two miles with some pace up front might be the key.
He's back to his last winning mark and has form to win this as recently as three starts ago. 33/1 reflects that recency bias again.
Of the rest, most want further or faster, and are working their handicap marks down for the big Christmas/Festival prizes (but I didn't just say that). But one other with close to ideal circumstances is Oh Crick. A winner of the Grand Annual and the equivalent handicap chase at the Aintree Festival back in 2009, he's mostly paid for that big spring since, with just the one win - over seventeen soft furlongs in February this year - from nineteen races since.
With so few having obvious chances, Oh Crick could nick some place money at least.
Selection: Gus Macrae
Best each way: Oh Crick
Outsider with a squeak: Takeroc
And that, dear reader, is that. Good luck with your Hennessy weekend wagers, and let's hope there's at least some gold in amongst the above verbosity.
p.s. what do you fancy? Leave a comment and let us know.