Hunting for the winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury

HENNESSY HERO? -- champion jockey Richard Johnson, who attempts to win the Hennessy Gold Cup for the first time on Saturday aboard the pre-race favourite, Native River.

HENNESSY HERO? -- champion jockey Richard Johnson, who attempts to win the Hennessy Gold Cup for the first time on Saturday aboard the pre-race favourite, Native River.

One of the most alluring appeals of racing is the affinity racegoers and punters can build with their favourite horses.

On the Flat, it is difficult, given that most horses race for no more than two or three seasons, therefore the relationship is more an appreciation of quality and achievement than kisses and cuddles.

But in the Jumps game, there are full-blown love affairs going on, as we found out on Saturday with wins by CUE CARD and SIRE DE GRUGY that were enough to warm the cockles of any racing heart at the onset of winter.

There is something tangibly gratifying about the return of old warriors proving they can still turn it on. Both ten-year-olds went into their respective races needing to defy awkward periods in their careers. But both provided the perfect antidote to the sadness that had engulfed the start of the Jumps season with the loss of Vautour and Simonsig and the retirement of Sprinter Sacre.

Cue Card had failed in three of his four previous starts, including on his seasonal re-appearance at Wetherby where over-aggressive tactics, which ranged from injudicious to bizarre, cost him a Charlie Hall he should have eaten for breakfast. While Sire De Grugy, without a win for 11 months, appeared to be in terminal decline after big-race defeats in the spring by a combined total of 109 lengths.

However, Colin Tizzard’s stable star swept by gallant 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner CONEYGREE with a performance of consummate authority to land his third Betfair Chase at Haydock, while Gary Moore’s 2014 Champion Chase hero sailed to victory on a drop to handicap company at Ascot, albeit with help from the assessor who had eased his mark by 12lbs from the horse’s last success in such a grade when he bolted up off 172 in the Chepstow mud in February 2015.

Both animals will now seek to enrich Christmas for us too as they tackle their next targets, the King George at Kempton for CC and the Tingle Creek at Sandown for SDG. Whether they can scale the heights beyond that is another matter as age catches up with them. The fact that Cue Card’s Haydock triumph was not enough to propel him to favouritism for next March’s Timico Gold Cup was greeted with indignation in some quarters. But you have to go way back to 1969 and What A Myth, ridden by Paul Kelleway, for the last time a horse aged 11 or over won the race.

Last weekend’s informative two-day cards at Haydock and Ascot were a sure sign that the Jumps season is firmly up and running, and we move on now to another, even better, offering thanks to Newbury’s Hennessy meeting, sponsored by bet365, this Friday and Saturday.

As a long-standing devotee of the meeting, I must admit that I was concerned by the track’s decision to shorten it from three days. And indeed, no satisfactory reason has yet been made public. Initially, I thought it was attributable to attendance figures, but I was surprised to discover that the crowd for the opening day (Thursday) of last year’s three-day fare was respectable.

Nevertheless, if the reason is to concentrate on a more compact, easier-to-market meeting that focuses on quality of race, rather than quantity of race, then the move has succeeded because the make-up and balance of this weekend’s cards, worth more than £600,000, are superb. It is disappointing that the 2m novices’ hurdle, juvenile hurdle and Bumper have been culled, but the ordinary handicaps also ditched will not be missed.

The jewel in the crown of the schedule, of course, is the Hennessy itself, now in its 60th year. The greatest handicap on the chasing calendar and one whose roll of honour is adorned by names such as Arkle, Mill House, Mandarin, Bregawn, Burrough Hill Lad, One Man, Suny Bay, Denman, Bobs Worth and Many Clouds.

This year’s renewal looks as strong and competitive as ever. Finding the winner will not be easy, although it is worth pointing out that upsets are rare in the Hennessy. The cream tends to rise to the top, and 11 of the last 13 winners have returned at SPs of 10/1 or under, which is just one of many persuasive trends well worth considering ahead of Saturday’s race. Others are:

* All of the last 11 winners had won a Class 1 or Class 2 chase;

* All of the last 11 winners had a minimum official rating of 145;

* Ten of the last 11 winners had finished in the first three in either or both of their last two runs;

* Nine of the last 11 winners had won over 3m or further;

* Nine of the last 11 winners carried a minimum of 11-1;

* Nine of the last 12 winners were second-season chasers;

* Eight of the last 11 winners were rated between 145 and 156;

* Eight of the last 11 winners had previously been successful at Newbury;

* Eight of the last 11 winners had run in an RSA Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival;

* Nine of the last 11 winners had run three to 12 times over fences;

* Eighteen of the last 20 winners were aged six, seven or eight.

Slaves to the trends will look no further than NATIVE RIVER, the mount of champion jockey Richard Johnson and a stablemate of Cue Card who falls down only on one in that he contested the four-miler at last season’s Festival, rather than the RSA. The reason for that, and it seemed valid at the time, was that he’d lack the requisite speed for the shorter trip after he’d been exposed for toe earlier in the year at Kempton and Wetherby. But not only did the 6yo run a blinder at the Festival, he also went on to conquer Aintree’s sharp 3m and land the Grade One Mildmay Novices’ Chase, hammering the RSA winner, BLAKLION and impressive Festival handicap winner, UN TEMPS POUR TOUT. He had also beaten David Pipe’s horse earlier in the campaign at Newbury, and is reported in such fine fettle by Tizzard, after a seasonal pipe-opening run over hurdles last month, that he has been matching strides with mighty stablemate Thistlecrack on the Venn Farm gallops.

Blaklion was almost certainly over the top come Aintree. After all, Nigel Twiston-Davies’s 7yo had himself thrashed Native River by 18 lengths at Wetherby a month before the Festival, and he has also enjoyed a satisfactory prep run ahead of Saturday’s contest. However, the key to this year’s Hennessy could well lie in that Aintree race. It is a curiosity that Un Temps Pour Tout actually has to concede weight to those who left him trailing, but if there is any credibility to the notion that the 7yo is a potential Gold Cup candidate, then he will need to go close.

Finishing closer than him or Blaklion to Native River that afternoon in Liverpool, though, was Peter Bowen’s rapidly improving 8yo, HENRI PARRY MORGAN, whose career has taken off since switching to fences and being applied with a tongue-strap. The eyecatching performance rocketed his mark to 149, after previous wins off 122 and 135, but he was still backed into favouritism for the end-of-season bet365 Gold Cup (formerly the Whitbread) at Sandown and was still cruising when unseating trainer’s son Sean Bowen at the final Railway Fences. It’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have been involved in the finish, which makes Saturday’s rating of 150, in receipt of 5lbs from Native River for a three-length beating on Merseyside, very tempting. Bowen has not been able to give him an outing beforehand, but reports the son of St Leger winner, Brian Boru, in good form at home after a racecourse gallop at Ffos Las.

I strongly suspect there will not be much between Henri Parry Morgan, Native River, Blaklion and Un Temps Pour Tout in the Newbury hundinger, and I will be surprised if the £113,900 first prize ends up elsewhere.

Last year’s brilliant winner, SMAD PLACE, must carry 11lbs more this time and defy top weight of 11-12, while I see no reason why Paul Nicholls’s SAPHIR DU RHEU should improve on his disappointing fifth in the 2015 race. Amazingly, it’s 36 years since the Hennessy winner was trained in Ireland, and the race might come too soon, after a nasty fall last week, for OUTLANDER, handled by trainer-of-the-moment, Gordon Elliott, to improve on that record.

Lower down the weights, I like Charlie Longsdon’s COOLOGUE, but fear this week’s heavy rain may have scuppered the chances of a horse who relishes Good ground, and although Ben Pauling’s duo, DRUMACOO and LOCAL SHOW, are capable of springing surprises, both lack experience for a demanding contest of this nature.

One I do fear could upset the ‘big four’ is Nicky Henderson’s VYTA DU ROC. The trainer admits the 7yo grey is not as talented as his previous winners of the race, but on a line through Jonjo O’Neiil’s exciting stayer, and winner of the Festival four-miler, Minella Rocco, he is attractively handicapped in receipt of 12lbs from Native River and will relish both trip and ground.