Lydia Hislop: Tears and cheers
The Hennessy Gold Cup is the best handicap chase of the season. It just edges it over the Grand Annual at the Cheltenham Festival and any marathon chase at Hexham. We're betting without the Grand National here, given it's a one-off. And these rankings are, clearly, fact and not personal opinion.
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I defy you to watch the 2009 Hennessy and not cry - or at least not to have to look away quickly and not talk for a while, if you're a show-no-weakness type. I'm a crier. I'm also a foot-stamper, a thigh-slapper and an overly loud cheerer when watching a good horserace.
All four of these things happened four years ago this Saturday. (I must admit it also happened in 1984, when my Grandma's favourite Burrough Hill Lad put up one of the great weight-carrying performances, and in 1997 when Suny Bay won. Three out of four were in evidence in 2007 and 2012, too.)
You won't need reminding that Denman won the 2009 Hennessy. He did so carrying top-weight of 11-12, conceding upwards of 13lb all round and having last been sighted almost eight months earlier staggering shakily to his feet following a winding fall at Aintree's Grand National meeting.
He also won in that trademark style, seeing off What A Friend's quixotic challenge almost with his charisma as much as his class, stamina and sheer cussedness. Thus the Tank also became only the third horse - emulating Mandarin and Arkle, no less - to triumph in this greatly competitive race twice.
He may have won the 2008 Gold Cup (and finished second in the next three renewals) but this was the definitive Denman moment. A real I-Was-There race. Racing UK has been repeating it this week as part of their Hennessy build-up and every time I have to stop what I'm doing to watch. I mean every time - and that's a lot.
Last year's Hennessy was a tremendous race in its own right, providing the ideal stage for Bobs Worth to kick off his Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning campaign. (Campaign used in its loosest sense, given it comprised only two races.)
His defeat of two subsequent Grade One chase winners - the newly-plausible Tidal Bay, who took the Lexus next time out, and First Lieutenant, who won the BetFred Bowl at Aintree in April - fired the imagination, not to mention me off the sofa.
This year's edition promises to be no less significant for the remaining season. Cape Tribulation, winner of the Grade Two Argento Chase in January, tops the handicap and there are numerous unexposed horses to whom he must concede weight.
"Invictus's price is unattractive for a horse returning from 651 days on the sidelines for an assignment likely to require a career best. His beguiling defeat of Bobs Worth at Ascot flatters him, given the second is proven to be a far better horse going left-handed."
Lydia on Invictus
Chief of those to my mind is Lord Windermere, who last year was an unheralded winner of a dramatic RSA Chase.If you watch that Cheltenham Festival contest again, it's hard to imagine Lord Windermere won't be benefitted by this step up in trip of two furlongs.
Objective viewing also undermines the idea that Boston Bob would definitely have won had he stood up at the last. Particularly ridden the way he was, making a quick wide move to lead on the home turn, he might well have been vulnerable to Lord Windermere's stamina had he stood up.
Oddly, the winner is still relatively unheralded - except by his trainer. Jim Culloty has been bullish about his charge's chances this week, just as he was prior to Cheltenham. It helps that Robbie McNamara has ridden him before, when a close-up third in a Grade One chase over too short a trip.
Lord Windermere has the ideal, improving profile of the second-season chaser for this contest and is unexposed at distances of three miles and further. He is no forlorn hope for the Gold Cup itself and, at a current best price of 25/1, would shorten considerably if successful here. (Although, of course, Sir Des Champs wins that next March, good ground permitting.)
Highland Lodge is perhaps the chief danger, having produced a career-best effort to chase home Standing Ovation on his seasonal debut at Wincanton; his conqueror won a more competitive race on his next start. Emma Lavelle's runner is another to be unexposed at this trip and is open to further progress. The yard also remains in good form, if you like that kind of reasoning.
There's reason to believe Loch Ba will outrun his price, given he is very effective at this course and ran well in a decent race at Bangor on his seasonal debut. Cloudy Too is also interesting, following a good win at Carlisle and upped to a trip that suited him over hurdles.
Merry King is another major player, having shaped with promise when challenging from a long way back behind the likeable Houblon Des Obeaux at Ascot last time. Triolo d'Alene, third in the same race, is still improving. Prince De Beauchene, armed with Ruby Walsh in the saddle, should also be thereabouts on his best form.
The going was good-to-soft at worst at Newbury on Thursday and, with minimal rain forecast, ground nearer good come Saturday may be in prospect. That could be a disadvantage for Rocky Creek, who never looked comfortable on a sound surface at Aintree in April; perhaps a more galloping track will help, though. Such ground is surely a serious issue for Our Father.
Invictus's price is unattractive for a horse returning from 651 days on the sidelines for an assignment likely to require a career best. His beguiling defeat of Bobs Worth at Ascot flatters him, given the second is proven to be a far better horse going left-handed.
Katenko was an upwardly mobile chaser last season until a bout of colic forced him to miss the Gold Cup, but it's hard to treat that setback lightly. Hadrian's Approach could be a serious chaser if he just got his jumping together but that, sadly for him, is the name of the game.
If a tongue-tie and cheekpieces for the first time reawaken Opening Batsman, he's well handicapped on his Racing Plus Chase victory. If you can find reasons to overlook one bad run, admittedly their latest, then Super Duty and Same Difference come into the argument.
You get the picture: it's one hell of a competitive race and a more than worthy centrepiece to Saturday's card at Newbury. A day that, for the first time since his strangely auspicious unseating of Sam Thomas in the 2008 Hennessy, will be without the presence of Big Buck's. Spare a thought for his recovery prior to the Long Distance Hurdle and cheer home a winner in the Hennessy.