Alex Hammond: Up The Creek!
Alex Hammond goes for Rocky Creek to win the Hennessy Gold Cup and also previews Sunday's Irish racing action.
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I love this time of year. Having enjoyed quality jumping last weekend which provided us with plenty of everything that is great about the game, it looks like we could be set for much the same this weekend.
We focus our attention on Newbury and Newcastle on Saturday with several top-class horses in action at both venues.
Starting at Newbury then, and the Hennessy Gold Cup is the feature at the Berkshire track.
My heart hopes that Rocky Creek can win this three-mile two-and-a-half furlong handicap chase as he is in my 10 to follow list and as I'm currently topping the ultra-competitive Sky Sports table at the moment, I'd like that feeling of euphoria to last a little while longer!
This is no biased pick though as trainer Paul Nicholls has had his eye on this race for the horse since his third place behind Dynaste in the Mildmay Novices' Chase at Aintree in April.
This is a race that often goes to second-season chasers and he falls into that category. More to the point he could be well handicapped. I've been pleased to see some nice winners coming out of the Nicholls stables of late and Just A Par bouncing back at Newbury on Thursday was further proof that they are back to form.
The trainer said a few weeks ago that some of his horses were running disappointingly, well, they look to be bouncing again now.
Best Mate's former jockey Jim Culloty has made no secret of his hopes for RSA Chase winner Lord Windermere in this race. He also feels his second-season chaser could be well handicapped and thinks he has come back from his summer break a bigger and better horse.
Alan King and Choc Thornton team up with Invictus. This horse hasn't run since his novice season - trouble is that was in 2012 and he hasn't run since February of that year. The huge positive is that the horse he beat was none other than subsequent Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth with Silviniaco Conti in fourth, so if he's straight after his layoff and retains his ability he could look very well handicapped. A few too many ifs and buts for me though.
Our Father has a 100 per cent record first time out and David Pipe will be hoping he can maintain that. He has only had the three starts over fences and another with a handy looking weight.
Willie Mullins was a bit coy when saying whether Prince de Beauchene would run, but he has declared the horse and Ruby Walsh comes over for the ride. He ran an encouraging race to finish third in the JNWine.com Champion Chase on his seasonal debut. In contrast to some of the other market leaders he is a seasoned chaser.
Nicky Henderson won the race with Bobs Worth 12 months ago and saddles Hadrian's Approach this time round. He made a pleasing return to action over an inadequate trip when only just beaten at Kempton and has a nice profile. It's interesting that Nico de Boinville rides (claiming 5lb) instead of Barry Geraghty who has opted for Triolo D'Alene.
Emma Lavelle's horses could hardly be running any better and she really deserves a change of luck after a dismal season last term. Highland Lodge is her representative in this and when I interviewed her on Sky Sports News a few weeks ago she gave this horse a favourable mention. He finished second at Wincanton on his first run of the season and should strip fitter for that outing. He beat Our Father in a novice chase this last December and should be a different horse this term with the stable firing on all cylinders.
Could Merry King be another big Saturday winner for Jonjo O'Neill? He is another trainer having a cracking year and this horse races off a handy weight. He isn't without his supporters in this competitive handicap, but I'm sticking with Rocky Creek in a wide-open race.
The Long Distance Hurdle sees the reappearance of At Fishers Cross who will be ridden by Barry Geraghty, as AP McCoy can't be in two places at once and instead heads to Newcastle to ride in the Fighting Fifth.
He was due to make his reappearance at Wetherby at the beginning of the month, but suffered a little injury when he arrived at the track and trainer Rebecca Curtis wasn't prepared to risk her stable star. So, it was back to her base in West Wales for recuperation which include visits to the local beach and the extra time won't have done him any harm.
The Sky Sports News cameras went to her Pembrokeshire stables a few weeks ago and the horse looked in good form with himself. He is a horse having a his first season outside of novice company and he faces some more established staying hurdlers in this extended three-mile contest.
Reve De Sivola and Celestial Halo are two such horses. The former was fourth in the World Hurdle in March and has already been in the money this term as he scooped a valuable Grade One pot in Auteuil on his last outing a few weeks ago.
Celestial Halo has been around a while and he also won his connections a few Euros at the Paris track back in May when winning the Prix la Barka. He is no back number at the age of nine as his second place in the World Hurdle showed.
At Fishers Cross is still the young pretender at this stage and has it to prove if he's to threaten Big Bucks' staying crown, but he improved on every start last season and although there will be plenty of pressure on connections every time he runs this term he looks the biggest danger to the Nicholls horse for some time. There's no Big Bucks in the race this year as he is coming back from injury and I hope the McManus horse wins and wins well, to give us something to look forward to in March.
To Newcastle then and My Tent Or Yours looks like he will take all the beating in the Fighting Fifth, there will certainly be some long faces if he doesn't land the odds.
There were a few of those after his defeat in the Supreme Novices' at the
Festival back in March as he was well fancied to follow up his impressive Betfair Hurdle win in the Cheltenham curtain-raiser.
However, his second place to Champagne Fever, with Jezki back in third, doesn't look too bad now, does it? In fact, it looks the strongest renewal of the race for many years.
His main market rival at Newcastle is Melodic Rendezvous. I get the feeling that Jeremy Scott can't wait to run the seven-year-old over fences. This race will determine how soon the Elite Hurdle winner goes chasing as it will show if he can cut it against the best two-milers over timber. As a matter of fact I wouldn't mind possessing a little each way ante-post voucher for the Arkle where he is concerned.
It could be that against a horse like My Tent or Yours this ground may not be testing enough and it's hard to see the Henderson trained favourite being turned over. Melodic Rendezvous does have the advantage of race fitness on his side and there have been one or two high profile horses turned over from Seven Barrows in this early part of the season, but I'm with the hot favourite here.
Moving onto Sunday and as ever there is some decent racing in Ireland. There are three Grade One races at Fairyhouse and Jezki lines up in one of them, the Hattons Grace Hurdle.
He bypassed a potential clash with Hurricane Fly in the Morgiana and runs here instead. He could give AP McCoy his biggest headache come Cheltenham festival time if both he and My Tent or Yours prove to be leading Champion Hurdle contenders, although I get the impression this is the one that is most likely to be the leading Champion Hurdle hope.
The Drinmore Novice Chase is on the same card and it looks quite an open contest from what we have seen from the eight entries. Sky Bet have Sizing Rio vying for favouritism with Don Cossack.
The former is two from two over fences for trainer Henry de Bromhead and is an exciting young horse - only a five-year-old. He was impressive in Graded company last time out and is a potentially star three-mile chaser in the making.
Don Cossack has it all to prove this season having been disappointing over hurdles last term. He has always promised plenty and it's crunch season for Gordon Elliott's charge.
He started his chasing career promisingly by winning at Galway, but he was a beaten odds on favourite in a Grade Two last time out. He wasn't disgraced there though as the winner is a Grade One winner over hurdles and this horse should be smarter over fences than he was the smaller obstacles.
Road to Riches, like Don Cossack and another of the entries Shrapnel, is owned by Gigginstown Stud, but this horse is trained by Noel Meade. He won on his chase debut earlier this month and should improve plenty for that experience.
I'll be interested to see if Dessie Hughes steps Art of Logistics up in class to run here. After his last win (he's two from two over fences) he said he won't be rushing him and he'll be a nice horse in the spring. If he lines up here he must have been pleasing his handler.
Galway Plate winner Carlingford Lough isn't out of it either and Gold Bullet can't be ruled out for Tom Taaffe after an impressive chase debut at Down Royal. It looks like it will be a cracking contest with the highly regarded Sizing Rio, the three entries for Gigginstown, a Galway Plate winner and another possible star chaser for Tom Taaffe, and it's tough to call. However, I think Don Cossack could be the one so I'm just siding with him.
Rocky Creek in the Hennessy Gold Cup @ 7/1 with Sky Bet
At Fishers Cross in the Long Distance Hurdle
My Tent or Yours in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle @ 8/11 with Sky Bet
Jezki in the Hattons Grace Hurdle @ 10/11 with Sky Bet
Don Cossack in the Drinmore Novice Chase @ 5/2 with Sky Bet>