Ah, the Hennessy. Newbury shorn of its Summer frivolities and stripped back ready for a gritty staying handicap on, no doubt, a biting, gloomy Saturday afternoon.
A classy handicap at that. Eight previous winners have also claimed the Cheltenham Gold Cup, including the current Champ, Bobs Worth off top weight last year. The provenance of the event, carrying racing’s longest continuous sponsorship, is pretty special. Arkle’s remarkable back-to-back victories in the 60’s were achieved under a specially devised handicapping system that had him weltered with 12st 6lb.
Denman achieved what was almost a comparable modern day double under a mere 11st 12lb in 2007 and 2009. The latter was an exhilarating, freewheeling performance of bold jumping and relentless galloping in which he gave away 13lb more to his rivals than in 2007.
Denman loved the broad, expansive furlongs of Newbury. The next year, The Tank almost repeated his Hennessy tricks when raised a further 8lb. He tired to an emotional 3rd. But not before he and Diamond Harry jumped for fun up the home straight "attacking fences like spawning salmons up Aysgarth Falls" (I noted at the time). That was when Harry was good. How dispiriting to see him in the cross-country egg and spoon thing at Cheltenham recently.
The Hennessy is one of my favourite punting events to boot. I’ll be getting stuck in this year. My long etched template of focusing on second season chasers cheekily concealing a competitive handicap mark has sometimes paid off – Trabolgan (though this was too was off top weight) and State Of Play, but mostly it hasn’t. I’ll nevertheless hold the race in teary affection since it commemorates one of my first decent ‘value’ wins in a grown up race. What’s Up Boys in 2001 recalled here from a chapter in Mug Punting:
I’ve looked at the form and it stacks up. He goes well fresh, his jumping has come together and he fits the profile of 2nd season chasers. Against the choice is a slight doubt about the going which will probably be on the soft side and some old bollocks about him being a spring horse. This is plainly nonsense. He’s only 7 and hasn’t been racing that long. Out of his eight wins up to this point, four were in November and December. It’s just that he got his jumping together over fences in the Spring last season. But of course this time it’s working in my favour. This is why he’s such a big price. Hallelujah! I’ve discovered value! So I’m on at 16-1.
The race isn’t quite so simple. I’m sat on the edge of my sofa at home staring at the tiny telly in the corner. Normally the telly’s fine. I don’t like big screens that dominate rooms. But today it’s too small. I did contemplate disappearing off to the bookies to watch the race, but they can be such soulless places. I stick with the homely feel of the cosy living room which is being torn apart by my rampaging children. Mrs A is hiding in the dining room. There is a decent field of 14 runners and they’re off. “They’re off, Helen.” No response. Not vocal anyway...
The pace seems pretty solid to me. What’s Up Boys takes handy order in the middle of the pack as Grey Abbey and Monifault lead them round the first circuit or so. Grey Abbey falls and suddenly the race kicks on a gear. There’s a mile to go and the soft ground/decent pace combination is already taking it’s toll. Frantic Tan, Jocks Cross and Hindiana are all dropping away. Turning out of the back straight, What’s Up Boys, easy to pick out as the only grey left standing and with jockey Paul Flynn resplendent in red and black silks is on the tail of the leading three - Behrajan, Take Control and Lord Noelie. I think he’s going to be right there in the mix.
Hectic now. Everything is off the bridle and jockeys are rowing away like it’s the Head of the River Race. Two out and What’s Up Boys is in the picture, but there are still two ahead of him. I think he’s closing but it’s not fast enough. At the last fence Flynn asks for a big jump andits not pretty. The flying grey lunges like he’s leaping cartoon-style off a rocky crevice. Except he’s over-balanced. For a moment I think he’s going to tip over, but the horse somehow finds a lovely stride.
I’m off the sofa now, edging towards the telly. There’s a long finishing straight at Newbury and I’m willing What’s Up Boys to make use of every yard. He catches Take Control who is being driven strongly by Tony McCoy.
Behrajan in front is not stopping though. What’s Up Boys has found that extra gear and is tearing along. It’s a magnificent sight as he eats up Behrajan’s advantage.
But the jockey has to pull him round the leader to launch his final assault up the stands rail. Has it broken his momentum? I am on my knees. Literally. Genuflecting in front of the screen with my nose about six inches from my horse’s flowing grey mane. I’m screaming at him. “Come on the Boys”.
And he is. Like a bullet. Where has he found this speed after a 3 mile slog? Is it too late? I can see the finishing line. One last effort. I can’t hear the commentary any more. Too many competing voices in my head. But I call the result as both beasts thunder past the post. What’s Up Boys by gossamer thread. “Yes. You absolute beauty!”
What a finish. He was like an Exocet up the home straight. I’m palpitating and hyper-ventilating. “Mummy what’s wrong with Daddy?” I look round and my eldest daughter hugging my youngest as if protecting her from some horrible monster that has invaded the living room. Does she mean me?
There is a better chance of a 16-1 winner in Saturday’s field than in plenty of other years. Very open looking heat with potential piled up higher than match-fixing arrest warrants at New Scotland Yard. And that old second season chaser rule could happily deployed here. But it might not reduce the live contenders that much.
So, an exercise in indecision:
Lord Windermere brings some priceless Grade 1 form-book franking quality. Last season’s RSA Chase is hard to assess though and he doesn’t look like a Bob’s Worth or a Denman.
Current market leader Invictus, lightly raced, claimed the scalps of both Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti last time out. Trouble is that was in February 2012. Both have obviously improved since whilst Invictus has been off the track with injury.
The following year’s Reynoldstown was won by Rocky Creek and he is close to the top of the market here. Nicholls’ leading contender was a long way behind Dynaste at Aintree and his best form seems to be with give underfoot. There won’t be much rain around before 3pm on Saturday.
Our Father is too inconsistent to risk at 8-1. He looked like a world beater 1st time out last season though. And this will be his seasonal debut.
Merry King was an eye-catcher in the United House Chase at Ascot earlier this month. Unfortunately I spotted this about a fortnight after Pricewise who put him up at a proper value 20-1. He’s now 10s.
The weather could also do for Katenko. This massively improving chaser from Venetia Williams’ yard is in my 40 to follow. I can’t really see a victory of 11st 11lb without deep ground, and there is a doubt around his recovery from injury. That said, the horse has never encountered anything better than soft in his 24 race career, so he may well go OK on the ground. It’s a risk, but having ruled out most other rivals, I’ll have a small each-way bet out of misguided loyalty to the project at 12-1.
The other I haven’t ruled out is Hadrians Approach. 11-1 or so is OK here off an even 11st, with a 5lb claimer getting the leg up. He was a 7 length 3rd behind Lord Windermere in the RSA and stands a decent chance of reversing that form. His reappearance at Kempton over an inadequate 2 ½ miles was encouraging and should have put him spot on for this.