Hennessy Gold Cup Signals Winter is Here
First run in 1957 at Cheltenham, the Hennessy Gold Cup found a permanent home at Newbury in 1960, and is one of the oldest sponsored races in the calendar. It has provided great drama and a platform for great horses over the years, from Mandarin’s brace of wins in the race’s infancy, Mill House’s sole victory over Arkle in 1963, through “Himself’s” domination in the following year, and the wins of subsequent Gold Cup winners Bregawn, Denman and Bobs Worth.
Burrough Hill Lad and Denman both carried top weight to win after they had landed steeplechasing’s Blue Riband, and while Red Rum was narrowly beaten in the race before winning his second Grand National, Many Clouds finally became the first to land both races in the latest season.
It’s a race that has been kind to Paul Nicholls, and he enjoyed his finest moments as a jockey at this meeting, winning on Broadheath and Playschool for David Barons. Playschool even started favourite for the Gold Cup the following March, and Barons never wavered in his belief that his star was got at in the preliminaries.
That was probably the Devon trainer’s only chance of winning that prestigious prize, so his anger is understandable, but Nicholls has been able to bury that disappointment since joining the training ranks, and in Denman he was able to complete the double which eluded him in his riding days. He’s also tasted Hennessy success with the talented but fragile Strong Flow, and his belief in the credentials of Saphir du Rheu has never wavered, despite mishaps at this meeting last year, and in the Feltham at Kempton, both races won by Coneygree.
Coneygree’s absence has robbed the contest of much of its intrigue, but his entry encouraged Nicholls to run Saphir du Rheu, which might not have been such an attractive option had connections known he’d be lumbered with top weight. As such, we should count our blessings, and Andy Stewart’s grey son of Al Namix imbues the race with the star quality needed after the ante-post favourite’s defection.
Bobs Worth attempts to become the first horse older than nine to win this prize since the redoubtable Diamond Edge in 1981. That statistic shows what a tough race this is for exposed chasers, but like Diamond Edge, Bobs Worth was the best stayer in Lambourn at his peak, and his poor form last year has seen his mark tumble to a tempting-looking 153. Both Denman and Mandarin have regained their Hennessy crowns, and age aside, it is dangerous to dismiss his chances.
Houblon des Obeaux was second to Many Clouds last year, and also chased home Coneygree here in the Denman Chase, so he can be expected to return to form after finding a bare three miles too sharp on his return at Ascot. That was also the case for last year’s Towton Chase winner Ned Stark, and the pair look poised to go well with the benefit of that outing.
Ned Stark, in particular, has the perfect profile for a race like this, being a lightly-raced second season chaser with a low weight and the prospect of further improvement. He is a stable-companion of Smad Place, who was a strong fancy for the race a year ago, but whose trainer bemoaned not giving him a pipe-opener before hand – he’s not made the same mistake again, and Smad Place looked at least as good as ever when making all over shorter at Kempton recently.
Neil Mulholland is another trainer who is double handed, and as well as Cheltenham Festival winner The Druids Nephew, who was tanking when coming down in the Grand National, he also has The Young Master, who had a fine autumn in 2014 (ignoring the debacle of his disqualification from the Badger Ales at Wincanton), and who wasn’t disgraced when second to Saphir du Rheu at Carlisle, since when he has had a half share taken by Robert Waley-Cohen, and son Sam will ride. The vibes are that he’s much the better-fancied of the yard’s pair, and he’s certainly one for the shortlist.
Finally, If In Doubt has been the biggest mover in the market in the last few days, but his jumping is a major worry in a race like this, and this hold-up horse won’t be able to fiddle his way around given the likely pace.
Selection: Ned Stark
Danger: Saphir du Rheu