Arguably the greatest handicap chase in the calendar takes place at Newbury on Saturday.
Many would side with the Grand National at Aintree, often called ‘The World’s Greatest Steeplechase’. It’s certainly the most famous Jumps race in the World, often dramatic, and full of surprises. The race proves incredibly difficult to win, and for trainers, jockeys and owners, is undoubtedly the most coveted. It’s hard to knock the National, but I will, (just a little) in saying that the race remains something of a lottery. Winners at 33/1, 25/1, 25/1, 66/1 and 33/1 in the past five years, endorses the point, and it remains the case that plenty of luck, along with talent, is needed to be victorious.
I’m therefore of the opinion that the Hennessy Gold Cup is the number one handicap chase in the UK and Ireland. The race has a stunning roll of honour, with a history of outstanding horses coming out on top, which makes this race one of the great fixtures of the winter.
Mandarin took the inaugural running in 1957, when the race was held at Cheltenham. In 1961 he won again, though this time at the event’s new home, Newbury. The horse was owned by Peggy Hennessy, a member of the family which sponsored the race.
Arguably the greatest horse to ever jump a fence, Arkle, had back to back victories 1964 and ‘65. Mill House had defeated him in the Hennessy of 1963, having won the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March. He went on to win the King George, though never again got the better of the mighty Arkle.
The legendary pair had hauled top-weight to victory, and some 20 years later the race witnessed another spate of impressive weight carrying achievements. Diamond Edge set the ball rolling in 1981, when bravely holding off all-comers whilst carrying 11st 10lbs.
Bregawn carried the same weight to victory a year later. Trained by Michael Dickinson, the classy chaser won the Gold Cup the following year, with his trainer famously filling the first five places.
Burrough Hill Lad was next to make-light of the hefty burden, when thumping his rivals in the 1984 renewal. Trained by Jenny Pitman, he’d won the Gold Cup earlier in the year, and followed his Newbury success with victory in the King George at Kempton.
In more recent times both Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls have captured Newbury’s showpiece. They were responsible for the latest pair of weight-hauling-heroes, in Trabolgan and Denman.
The former had won the RSA as a novice chaser and was allotted 11st 12lbs for his tilt at the Hennessy. Mick Fitz took the ride, and crept into contention as the race came to the boil. He led at the second last, and kept on powerfully to give Henderson his first success in the race.
Denman became one of the modern greats when capturing the prize in 2007 and 2009. ‘The Tank’ was in a class of his own when romping clear for victory number one. Later in the campaign he spread-eagled a field including Kauto Star, to win the Gold Cup. He missed the Hennessy of 2008 due to heart issues, but was back at Newbury in 2009, when again defying top weight for a famous second success.
There’s no wonder the Hennessy Gold Cup sparks such excitement among the jump racing fraternity.
This year’s renewal may lack a true heavyweight, but the race, as competitive as ever, is stacked with horses of huge potential. A Coneygree or Cue Card at the top of the handicap would certainly have added spice. Nevertheless, Saturday’s showpiece looks a cracker.
The horse that does have to overcome top-weight tomorrow is last year’s winner Smad Place. Now a nine-year-old, he was certainly impressive 12 months ago, though he’s 11lb higher in the handicap this time around. Denman is the only horse aged nine to have won the Hennessy this century. It looks a tough ask for Alan King’s courageous grey.
Seven-year-olds have a great record in recent years, with five wins from the last 10 renewals. It’s often proved a race that favours second season chasers, and there’s plenty that fit the bill. Un Temps Pour Tout and Blaklion are the right age, and were both successful during their novice chase campaign.
The former came off second best to Native River on a couple of occasions last season, but was impressive when winning the Ultima Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. David Pipe captured this race in 2008, with another seven-year-old in Madison Du Berlais. Un Temps Pour Tout has had a spin over hurdles, and looked impressive when winning at Aintree.
Blaklion won the RSA Novices’ Chase in March and looks fairly treated by the handicapper. He ran well for a long way in the Charlie Hall, and is sure to strip fitter this time. Nigel Twiston-Davies has sounded bullish in the lead-up to this, and the horse looks to have a serious chance. He’s a gutsy, strong stayer, and is likely to be doing his best work late on.
The aforementioned Native River runs for the all-conquering Colin Tizzard stable. He finished his novice chase campaign with an impressive win in the Mildmay at Aintree, beating both Un Temps Pour Tout and Blaklion in the process. He’s another gutsy type, who appears to find plenty for pressure. Richard Johnson keeps the ride, having won on him at Aintree. He’s another that arrives after a prep run at Wetherby, where he finished second in the Bet365 Hurdle. He looks to have a great chance.
Paul Nicholls has a pair of seven-year-olds in the field. Saphir Du Rheu was fifth in this race 12 months ago, though is now 10lb lower in the handicap. He returned to something like his old self, when third in his seasonal return at Ascot. One gets the feeling that he wasn’t quite ready, mentally or physically, for the top flight a year ago. Classy enough to finish runner-up in the World Hurdle in 2015, if he jumps well enough, he is another that looks to have a huge chance.
Vicente rounded off last season by winning the Scottish Grand National, a victory that went a long way toward helping Paul Nicholls retain the trainers’ title. He has a decision over Un Temps Pour Tout at Cheltenham, and though behind Native River in the National Hunt Chase at the festival, he’d incurred traffic problems three-out. He needs better ground to have a chance, and may just get it, with a few dry days forecast.
Peter Bowen has an interesting contender in the Mildmay runner-up Henri Parry Morgan. That Aintree run behind Native River, marked him down as a staying chaser with a bright future. He’d won very easily at Uttoxeter prior to the Aintree outing, and I wonder if he arrived on Merseyside a slightly fresher horse than some of his opponents. Nevertheless, he can’t be discounted.
Vyta Du Roc has been touted as a potential winner, and Henderson’s seven-year-old creeps in towards the bottom of the handicap. He was slightly disappointing in the RSA, when some distance behind Blaklion, and then failed to get home when fifth in the Scottish National. His comeback run at Aintree over hurdles was also disappointing, and he now has something to prove at this level. Despite having little weight to carry, he’s not for me.
I’m coming down in favour of three progressive young chasers. I’m struggling to split Native River and Blaklion. I think they’ll both go close, and am just edging towards Tizzard’s fella. I’m also confident that Vicente will run well for the champion trainer.