17 runners are set to go to post for the Hennessy Gold Cup with the field headed by second season chaser Saphir Du Rheu.
The Nicholls inmate has some smart hurdling form to his name including a Welsh Champion Hurdle and a Cleeve Hurdle before a strong third in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle. However, he took time to come to hand over fences and after a fall on debut, and again in graded action at Kempton, he reverted to hurdles to boost his confidence. Following two fine runs over hurdles Nicholls boldly chose to revert the Andy Stewart owned gelding back to fences in the Mildmay Novices’ Chase at the Aintree in which he slammed the field by 15 lengths. After warming up with an expected victory in a Carlisle Intermiediate Chase, and following the defection of Coneygree, Saphir Du Rheu heads not only the weights but the betting too. 3/1 is a short price for a horse who has fallen on his only appearance at Newbury, at this meeting a year ago, and one who has fallen in half of his chases to date. Factor in the top weight of 11st 12lb, the conditions of this race make it difficult to back the favourite, especially at that short a price.
Former winner Bobs Worth has seen his price tumble since his hurdles victory at Aintree and rates a 5/1 shot to become the first horse since Denman to regain the crown. Bobs Worth is a gallant horse who in the space of 13 months once took the Hennessy Gold Cup, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Lexus Chase. However his form has dropped drastically since, seeing him finish 8th in the Lexus, pulled up behind Coneygree at Cheltenham and well adrift of the winner in the bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown off a mark of 159.
Trainer Nicky Henderson has expressed a concern about the ground at Newbury: “We’ve been very happy with Bobs Worth. Everything has gone well and his schooling has been brilliant. He’s in good form, but wouldn’t want a lot of rain.”
Despite his pleasing comeback at Aintree it has been nearly two years since his last chase victory and it would be a remarkable feat to achieve it in a race as competitive as this.
Ned Stark won a novice chase at this meeting last year and was subsequently sent off favourite for the Grade 3 Handicap Chase at Cheltenham in which he was soundly beaten by The Druids Nephew. Ned Stark left a good impression when beating Timesawastin’ at this venue last year but has struggled at a higher level since and others a fancied for the win.
His Festival conqueror The Druids Nephew will have to give more weight away to the likes of Ned Stark if bidding to follow up in another big handicap. One of two for Neill Mulholland, The Druids Nephew led the Grand National field for a long way until falling and warmed up for this showpiece with a spin over hurdles. The son of Kings Theatre would ultimately not want the ground too soft according to his trainer.
“I’m delighted with him but he wouldn’t want too much give in the ground and won’t run if it’s very soft. The season isn’t all about one race and he’s got other targets to come, including the National again.”
This goes some way to explaining the recent drift in the market. The Druids Nephew will have to produce a career best to defy this mark and carry such a big weight home in a competitive race.
Mulholland’s second dart for the Hennessy board is last year’s highly progressive novice The Young Master. The Echo Of Light gelding rose up the chasing ranks last season with victory in the Badger Ales Trophy – although disqualified – and the Ascot Silver Cup before a disappointing run in the RSA Chase when attempting to make the running. On his comeback this season he received 4lbs and a 7 length beating by Saphir Du Rheu however Mulholland is hopeful his charge can reverse that form.
“He’d just about be the pick of my pair and I think he has a serious chance. With the improvement over the summer, there’s a chance the handicapper still hasn’t got him.”
The Young Master has experience of big field handicaps over fences and has shown his rapid progression in the last year and comes into this race with a live chance of glory.
Despite finishing 5th in last year’s renewal, Smad Place was soundly beaten 20 lengths by Many Clouds when giving him 4lb. The pair re-opposed in the Argento Chase in which Smad Place received a massive swing in the weights and gallantly went down a length after a mistake three out. The form behind Many Clouds has been well advertised with Sherwood’s charge claiming the Grand National and running well in the Gold Cup.
This year Alan King has given Smad Place a prep run, as opposed to coming to this race fresh last season. The grey beat the re-opposing Fingal Bay by 8 lengths at Kempton whilst giving his 3lbs. Whilst Fingal Bay receives an 11lb swing this time, it will be difficult for Phillips Hobbs’ Pertemps winner to make up ground on an improving and classy horse in Smad Place.
Alan King has always tried Smad Place at the highest level, finishing third behind Big Bucks and then Solwhit in the World Hurdle and a neck 2nd in the RSA to O’Faolains Boy.
Smad Place has the form and class to take a race such as this, and with the benefit of a thoroughly encouraging prep run Alan King’s grey is sure to run a big race.