McCain's Super set to star
Simon Holt previews Saturday's action at Newbury and Newcastle and is taking two against the field in the Hennessy.
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Sitting in the press room at Kempton earlier this week, a discussion took place as to what might win Saturday's Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury and a minimum of seven possible winners were suggested which illustrates just how competitive the race looks.
It's impossible to be confident but I am a big fan of Donald McCain's young chaser SUPER DUTY, who made a solid start to his fencing career last term.
Beaten a head when trying to concede 7lb to the useful Goulanes at Wetherby in February, he then lost out by a whisker to Same Difference at the Cheltenham Festival and now enjoys an 11lb pull with his conqueror who went onto finish a fine second to Quentin Collonges in Sandown's bet365 Gold Cup.
A horse with a great attitude, the solid-jumping Super Duty looks set to win a good staying prize this season and connections sound confident of a bold show having opted for this tougher task compared to the Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle.
This could just be the sort of horse who might continue the McCain family's Grand National traditions one day but for now, the Hennessy will most certainly do.
Following the defection of Tidal Bay, many runners are heavily weighted and, on 10st11lb, HIGHLAND LODGE is one who still looks attractively handicapped after going up 7lb for finishing an excellent second to Standing Ovation at Wincanton on his reappearance.
In a tremendously exciting race to watch, the two horses fought tooth and nail over the final three fences that day and recorded an exceptionally fast time but, ultimately, a massive weight concession of 26lb to a horse who returned to the course to win off a 10lb higher mark next time proved just too much for Emma Lavelle's gelding.
The fact that the race was also run on good ground, whereas Highland Lodge is thought to need it much softer, only makes his effort look better but, more significant, is a piece of form at Newbury at this meeting 12 months ago when the selection finished a close third to recent Charlie Hall Chase winner Harry Topper and Cheltenham Festival winner Benefficient with Houblon des Obeaux (now 11lb worse off) back in fourth.
After slamming the reopposing Our Father (probably below-par) at Cheltenham next time, Highland Lodge lost his form in the second half of the season but, when one considers that he races off a mark of 143 here and Harry Topper is now rated 153 and Benefficient 157, his chance looks very strong at these weights.
Another lightly weighted horse who takes the eye is Merry King whose trainer and jockey - Jonjo O'Neill and Richie McLernon - landed the Paddy Power Gold Cup with Johns Spirit a fortnight ago.
There seems no stopping the O'Neill team this season and their representative here is a steadily improving young chaser who made an encouraging reappearance when chasing home Houblon Des Obeaux at Ascot.
Now 7lb better off with the winner, Merry King split two recent winners - Rolling Aces and Handy Andy - on this course last December and, with a clean round of jumping, looks sure to be thereabouts.
Amongst those at the top of the handicap, Katenko is very interesting as he was considered a possible Gold Cup candidate when trotting up at Sandown and Cheltenham last term before succumbing to colic.
Providing he has fully recovered from that illness - and some horses (such as Camelot on the level) don't - Venetia Williams' massive gelding remains an exciting horse but all his best form has come on deep ground.
At the other end of the age range, former Gold Cup winner Imperial Commander looks interesting as well off a mark of 153 (compared to 185 in his pomp) but he has been plagued by injury in recent seasons and win, lose or draw this will be the 12-year-old's final race.
Two of last season's best staying novices, Lord Windermere (winner of the RSA Chase) and Rocky Creek (who should be well suited by this flat course), could well make further improvement this season.
Despite winning only an average renewal of the top staying novices' chase at the Cheltenham Festival, Lord Windermere is a thoroughly nice horse and has been trained for this race by Jim Culloty.
Rocky Creek is also a taking individual and is better off with Houblon Des Obeaux who he beat in the Reynoldstown Chase at Ascot last February.
The two dark horses in the field are Our Father, who seems to only run well first time out, and Invictus, who has been off the course since beating Bobs Worth at Ascot in February, 2012.
It's possible that the latter is rather flattered by that form due to the proximity of third-placed Alfie Spinner and it will be a remarkable piece of training by Alan King to have him ready to win this race after such a long absence.
Our Father definitely has two ways of running but looks very smart when fresh and his connections will have deliberately avoided a prep-run.
Finally, there has been money for Prince De Beauchene in the last 24 hours or so. The combination of trainer Willie Mullins and jockey Ruby Walsh always deserves respect and this somewhat fragile chaser has always looked capable of landing a big prize.
In a hugely open race, I suggest each-way bets on Super Duty and Highland Lodge who are both at double-figure odds.
At Newcastle, the StanJames.com Fighting Fifth Hurdle features an intriguing clash between My Tent Or Yours and Melodic Rendezvous, two of last season's best novices.
While the first-named, winner of the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury and runner-up to Champagne Fever at Cheltenham, is likely to start a short-priced favourite, the hugely promising Melodic Rendezvous has the advantage of a recent outing after scoring at Wincanton three weeks ago.
That form took a knock when the runner-up Far West performed moderately at Haydock last week but Jeremy Scott's seven-year-old has done little wrong so far.
It is a contest to savour and probably one to watch rather than bet on.