The Hennessy Gold Cup is second only to the Grand National in terms of punter interest in handicap chases and often provides some long-range clues for that Aintree event (3pm, Saturday at Newbury).
The 5/1 clear favourite is the five-year-old French-bred Djakadam, trained by Willie Mullins (pictured). No five-year-old has won the Hennessy, but some rules do not apply to French-breds as Long Run proved when he became the first six-year-old winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Djakadam was rated 132 after six runs (including two wins) over hurdles and is relatively unexposed over fences. He won first time out over larger obstacles in December at Leopardstown, starting as the 11/8 favourite. Next time out he took the Grade 2 Killiney Novice Chase at Leopardstown beating the late Dessie Hughes’ Bright New Dawn (who went on to win twice) impressively by four lengths over two miles five furlongs at the same course. That was on soft ground and he won in the manner of horse that would get further.
We last saw Djakadam in the JLT Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival when he fell three from home. He is progressive and looks well handicapped, starting off a mark of 142. Mullins has had this race in mind for Djakadam for some time and there is no better jockey than Ruby Walsh. The partnership could well provide Mullins with his first Hennessy winner but Djakadam looks ungenerously priced for a horse unproven over the trip.
Seven-year-olds have won five of the past ten renewals and Oliver Sherwood’s Many Clouds (8/1) is one of the fancied runners of that age. He is proven over three miles and looks as if the extra two furlongs should not inconvenience him. Having reached a mark of 138 over hurdles he kicked off his chasing career at Carlisle in November last year, winning over two and a half miles on heavy ground. He followed up by finishing two lengths second to Paul Nicholls’ Black Thunder in a four runner novices’ chase at Haydock over two miles seven furlongs. After a facile win at Wetherby he was the runner-up by two and a half lengths to O’Faolains Boy in a Grade 2 three mile novices’ chase at Ascot in February. Many Clouds was giving the winner 4lb. The form looked golden when O’Faolains Boy went on to win the RSA Chase at the Festival (with Many Clouds brought down). He ended his season by finishing a below-par and distant fourth in the Grade 1 Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree, 21 lengths behind Jonjo O’Neill’s Holywell on good ground.
In his only run this season Many Clouds won a two and a half mile intermediate chase at Carlisle on soft ground, beating Nicky Richards’ Eduard by just over a length when receiving 6lb from him. He has been raised 7lb since but looks fairly treated off 151. With soft ground a certainty, he has to be one for the shortlist.
We haven’t seen Alan King’s Smad Place (7/1) since he lost out by a neck in the RSA Chase. He was a classy hurdler, winning a Grade 2 and twice finishing about five lengths behind the ill-fated Solwhit in Grade 1 contests over three miles, achieving a mark of 158.
This French-bred seven-year-old unseated Choc Thornton first time out over fences but went on to win his next two starts, beating Nicholls’ Sam Winner by two lengths here over three miles on heavy ground in February. He also scored impressively on his only other start here back in 2010. Smad Place fits the bill as a potentially progressive second season chaser but quite a few of King’s horses have come on for their first run. He will like the ground and has obvious claims.
Last year’s Hennessy runner-up, Rocky Creek (11/1) has a decent chance of making the frame again for Nicholls. He found one too good on his only outing this season, finishing 11 lengths behind Noel Meade’s Road To Riches in Down Royal’s three-mile ‘Champion Chase’ four weeks ago. The trainer has made some positive noises and stated Rocky Creek will be fitter for this. He has clearly recovered from his gallant run in the Grand National – he finished fifth, conceding nearly a stone to the winner, Pineau De Re.
Now an eight-year-old, Rocky Creek starts off a 5lb higher mark this year but Nicholls’ horses have hit form and the yard boasts a 24% strike-rate (based on that stat alone the 9-1 shot Rocky Creek has a 3/1 chance of winning). Sam Twiston-Davies can be relied upon to give the horse every chance to shine.
Nicholls also saddles the thoroughly useful Unioniste (16/1) who will be partnered by Noel Fehily. Deserted by the stable jockey, this six-year-old has presumably not shown anything spectacular at home but, as a son of Dom Alco (the sire of Silviniaco Conti and Neptune Collonges), that is to be expected according to Nicholls.
He only scored once in his five runs last season, beating Philip Hobbs’ Wishfull Thinking by seven lengths at Aintree over three miles and a furlong in December. His next three runs were disappointing. He won here over three miles on soft ground in February 2013 and might just surprise connections.
Philip Hobbs is enjoying an unprecedented purple patch, suggesting that the eight-year-old Fingal Bay (8/1) will not want for fitness – which is just as well as we haven’t seen him since May. That was in the Grade 1 Ladbrokes Hurdle at Punchestown. He finished seven lengths behind the winner, Jessie Harrington’s Jetson, having possibly stayed too close to the pace early on. He previously scored at the Cheltenham Festival in a three mile listed hurdle, beating Nicholls’ Southfield Theatre by the shortest of margins having won on his seasonal debut.
He is class act but he has not encountered fences since December 2012 when he jumped violently left and decided to take Richard Johnson out through a wing three out when going best. He was obviously physically wrong and was not seen again until reappearing over hurdles in February 2014. This will be his fourth start over fences. He has won on testing ground. If his jumping holds up he should be thereabouts at the finish.
What A Warrior (25/1) is an interesting outsider. Since moving to Dan Skelton he appears transformed, winning both his starts this season. Skelton’s decision to use a tongue tie could well be the reason. What A Warrior made all in the Grade 3 Gold Cup Handicap Chase at Ascot three weeks ago, beating Nicholls’ Black Thunder by half a length. He has been raised 7lb by the handicapper since.
He is a seven-year-old son of Westerner who was responsible for two winners at the Cheltenham Festival. His form suggests that he prefers better ground but he could still be a contender.
The Druids Nephew (10/1) has improved since a change of yard to Neil Mulholland and is bound to have his supporters after he was a gallant runner-up in the Murphy Group Handicap Chase at Cheltenham (3m3f in the soft) a fortnight ago. He runs off the same handicap mark here but the handicapper must believe he is well in as he goes up 6lb for future races. The Druids Nephew seems sure to handle conditions.
Hennessy Gold Cup Betting Tips
Djakadam looks well treated by the handicapper but provides poor value at 5/1. Hobbs’ Fingal Bay is tempting at 8/1 but Paul Nicholls’ outstanding record in this race cannot be ignored and ROCKY CREEK has to be our pick each-way at a best price of 11/1 with William Hill & Paddy Power. He can land me a Saturday big-race betting tips hat-trick.
Fiona Derek is our Reality TV and horse racing expert. The only time you won’t find her riding or mucking out a racehorse is when she is watching Reality TV or racing on the box.