It's the Hennessy on Saturday, and alongside this pillar of the National Hunt season stands an impressive supporting card. In this post, attention is turned to the Hennessy Gold Cup itself, of course, and also the bet 365 Handicap Chase, the bet 365 Handicap Hurdle, and the Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle.
The first of that quartet goes off at 1.20.
Two miles six and a half furlongs on sticky ground - currently soft, but drying weather - will be a test in which horses and riders may be well served to race prominently. It can be very hard to make up ground late in a stamina-sapping race when the turf appears to have had invisible Bostik liberally smeared across it. That's my going in position for the contest, at any rate, for what is a very open-looking contest.
Plenty of this field are happy close to the front so it won't help enormously in whittling things down, but interestingly perhaps, four horses likely to be towards the head of the market do tend to race off the pace. They are Baby Shine, Bertie Boru, Dushrembrandt, and Midnight Appeal. As is the usually the case with hold up horses, they collectively have more placed efforts than wins to their name and, while it's far from impossible that one will prevail, I don't see too much value in their odds.
Let's start with the most likely to lead, Noble Legend. Caroline Bailey's seven year old is a seven time winner and has dropped back to his last winning rating of 129. Most of his victories have come in smaller fields, and it might be that he's passed late in the day. But on his third run off a break, and with form at the trip, in the ground and in a higher grade, he could go well for a long time.
Farbreaga has won over this course and distance, and loves deep ground. The worries with this chap are firstly that he's eleven pounds higher than his last win, and secondly that it won't be slow enough for him. That said, if he races prominently as he usually does, he ought to be able to keep grinding when fainter hearts have conceded. Moreover, he can go fresh - form of 112 in his last three runs off a 60+ day break - so the 253 day hiatus would not be overly concerning.
Victor Dartnall won this in 2009 with Exmoor Ranger, and he runs the six year old, Tolkeins Tango, this time. Having struggled in this grade at the start of the year, a drop in class coincided with a drop in trip, and that combination worked the oracle. Whether it was the trip or the class that made the difference we'll know by 1.30pm or so, but he deserves another crack at this level.
It might be material to note that seven of the nine winners of this race carried 11-05 or more, and with top weight Count Salazar not being optimally suited by soft ground, and three of the next four in the weights playing their cards late, I'll take a 12/1 chance on the front running Noble Legend. Farbreaga is a viable alternative at around 16/1.
Two miles and three furlongs is the trip for this handicap hurdle worth close to twenty grand to the winner. Surprising then that it has only attracted ten entries, headed by Paul Nicholls' Silsol.
Nicholls has been in great form in the past fortnight (up to Thursday), with his 40 runners winning 11 races for a profit of £24.86 to a £1 level stake, and another £6.67 added to the ledger courtesy of three winners from six runners on Friday.
Silsol is unexposed and has won his last two over hurdles, both in lower class than this. His rating of 144 is offset a tad by Jack Sherwood's seven pound claim, replacing Harry Derham's three pounds. Jack won on Silsol two starts back so knows the horse well enough and, despite the class rise and top weight, Nicholls' charge has strong claims for a barn in rude health.
Hammersly Lake is an ex-French multiple non-winner from the currently under-performing Nicky Henderson yard. Despite those negatives, he's favourite to win. In fairness, he does have placed Listed form from France and was running well when falling on his UK debut two starts back. Since then, he's run a very close second in a handicap hurdle at Cheltenham, and ought to run well. Still, I'd not be excited by the price and am happy to let him beat me for reasons outlined already.
Another who fell (well, unseated actually) when in with a good chance last time is Home Run. He was at the business end of his race there, meaning he's coming back to the track quickly enough, and he's now 0 from 8 in Class 2. Not for me.
Exitas' three race winning streak came to a halt in the Grade 3 Greatwood Hurdle, where he ran creditably, and this drop in class should see him go close to at least making the frame under otherwise optimal conditions.
The one to take them along could be Germany Calling, a horse who was highly tried last season as a novice. Since going handicapping, he's yet to win but has run two solid places in Class 3. It's Class 2 here and is unlikely to be easier than those beaten runs, so he should be caught before the jam stick.
Albert Bridge has his first run of the season for Emma Lavelle having previously been with Ralph Beckett, and this classy flat horse (rated 85) is bred for this job. In two runs over timber to date, he's finished 51, and was again trained by Lavelle at the time. That win was in a Class 5 novice at Plumpton which is a far cry from this company. Nevertheless, it was on soft ground and he comes into the race in great shape.
Bordoni is really interesting. He was a good fifth in the fiercely competitive Galway Hurdle at the Festival in the summer and before that had won as he liked in a Class 3 handicap when shouldering top weight. He has the assistance of AP McCoy again here, and he looks likely to be shorter than his current 8/1 when the tapes rise.
It's a very open looking race as you'll have gathered, and I'll side tentatively with McCoy and Bordoni at the prices. He should be able to travel in the slipstream of Germany Calling and has shown a good amount of ability, with the promise of more to come. True, he's a bit higher in the weights than his last win, but he's earned it.
The Long Distance Hurdle, a Grade 2 run over a long distance - well, three miles and half a furlong at any rate - is the last of the tasting courses before the Hennessy, and it has a touch of showbiz courtesy of World Hurdle winner More Of That's presence in the seven strong line up.
More Of That has risen sharply through the ranks, having started in a maiden hurdle at Folkestone in December 2012. His career has outlasted that of his debut track, and in four runs last term he went from Class 3 handicap winner to that Cheltenham success, vanquishing another unbeaten horse, Annie Power, in the process.
There were five lengths and more back to the rest that day, and if More Of That is even 90% fit, he should have too much for his six rivals, the next best of which is rated eleven pounds inferior. That next best is Cole Harden, an out and out front runner who has some most progressive form to his name.
Since finishing 14 lengths behind Faugheen in the Neptune at the Cheltenham Festival, Cole Harden ran a four length second of 18 in the Grade 1 Sefton Novices' Hurdle, and backed that up on debut this term with a win in the Grade 2 West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby.
He has match fitness on his side, and will ask some questions of More Of That and the rest with his dour front-running style. Trip and ground will be no problem to him, and he rates a decent bet in the 'without' market, although the only current offer of evens is unexciting.
The rest seem to have a bit to find, and if I had to take one at a price it would probably be the slow Shotgun Paddy. He loves soft ground, stays forever, and comes from an in form team. But I don't have to, so I won't.
More Of That is obviously the most likely winner, and I reckon the market has it right with the progressive Cole Harden the most likely to chase him home. Nothing to see here (from a betting perspective anyway), move along...
Nineteen of them go to post for the big race, the Hennessy. Some trends might be worth taking in before a dive into the form book...
All figures relate to 1997 onwards, that being the extent of the data in the excellent horseracebase.
The big guns have a very strong record in the race, with Paul Nicholls backing up his three wins with eight further placed runners since 1997, from 32 entries. Nicky Henderson has three winners too, and five more places to his name, from just 17 runners since 1997. David Pipe and Philip Hobbs both have a winner and three placed efforts to their names.
Of the 15 winners since 1997 to complete last time, 14 were in the first three. Try not to make excuses for a poor run when last seen.
Six (4), seven (8) and eight (3) year olds have the best record, with nine year olds claiming the other two wins in the time frame under review. Double digit aged runners are 0 from 38 in that time.
Weight is material, with those carrying more having a stronger record. Indeed, eleven winners (65%) came from just 102 starters (34%) carrying 10-12 or more.
Djakadam carries 10-11, and all carry 10-07 or more, so it may be reckless to cut off arbitrarily at 10-12. Nevertheless, so doing, and applying the other comments above leaves a shortlist of Houblon Des Obeaux, Triolo D'Alene, Rocky Creek, Ballynagour, Smad Place, Many Clouds, and Annacotty.
Djakadam is the favourite, bidding to be the youngest winner since, well, ever. That has to be a serious knock even for one offering as much untapped promise as he. True, he hails from the all-conquering Willie Mullins yard. True also that he looked devilishly precocious when winning a Grade 2 in Ireland comfortably and then holding every chance when coming to grief at the fourth last in the JLT at the Festival.
But... he remains a boy, and this is a man's race. His jumping was not entirely fluent at Leopardstown which, allied to the tumble at Cheltenham, makes him something of a binary wager. If he gets round, he has a very good chance to win, with so much more promised. It's a fair sized if.
On the bright side, Winner Sports are offering 9/1 about his chance to new customers, which is a lot better than the general 5/1, and could be tempting.
Smad Place is next in the market, and he looks a pretty solid type for the race. A very smart hurdler, he's made a smooth transition to fences, barring a debut unship at the last with the race won. Since then, he won twice in novice company en route to a very close second in the RSA Chase.
If that hasn't bottomed him as it does some horses, this less undulating track should be right up his street, and the ground will hold no fears. A mark of 155 is playable if he has any Gold Cup pretensions, and 7/1 to win is quite tempting with the Alan King yard in good nick.
Fingal Bay and Many Clouds are next in the betting, and both are thoroughly likeable units. Fingal Bay has achieved more but is also more exposed, and I'm on the record as having backed Many Clouds for the Gold Cup at a massive price already.
Clearly then, I hope he runs a huge race, and I think he will. He's a bit of a boat and susceptible to quicker types, as O'Faolain's Boy showed when outrunning him in the Reynoldstown at Ascot. But he was about to get into contention in the RSA when brought down, and wasn't really ever going the pace at Aintree on his subsequent start.
It was much more of a stamina test when he beat good stayers at Carlisle in a Listed event on his first run this term, and if it's holding ground he might make the frame. I won't be too worried about his Cheltenham chance being compromised by a top six finish here, as it could be too quick for him.
The Druids Nephew has taken support, and it's not hard to see why after his close second at Cheltenham in the Murphy Group Handicap Chase, but he too might want more of a stamina test. I could see him running well in a National this season.
The top two trainers in the recent history of the race are represented by last year's first and second, Triolo D'Alene and Rocky Creek. The former ran down the field at Cheltenham in the Gold Cup before pulling up in the National at Aintree.
Clearly this track and trip suits him, and a mark ten pounds higher than his win a year ago shouldn't stop him from running well, though it may prevent a repeat win. The latter is weighted to reverse form, and has had a prep run this time around as well. The stable are in bouncing form and another frame finish looks quite likely. The niggle with Rocky Creek is that he has been second a fair bit in recent outings.
Unioniste is a bit of a forgotten horse in the line up, and Paul Nicholls' other runner is back to the mark he was winning off this time last year. That was in a Listed chase at Aintree, and he ran good race - out of three - afterwards. Still only six, he is a decent price at 18/1 for a horse of his ability and for a trainer with such a fine record, both recently and in the race.
It's a cracking race, and one sure to shape the Gold Cup market as a result. I think Smad Place has a really solid chance, and 7/1 looks fair enough; and Unioniste could bounce back to form as a young, fresh horse. 18/1 is a good each way play.
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Five places in the Hennessy with Racebets (day of race only, top price on Annacotty, Triolo D'Alene, La Reve)
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