Coneygree’s absence from the Hennessy Gold Cup on Saturday changes everything. Horses that looked to have really nice racing weights now find themselves 9lbs higher in the handicap and that won’t make Saphir Du Rheu’s task any easier.
Paul Nicholls is going for his fourth win in this contest so knows what’s needed.
I won it on Strong Flow (2003) and was on Denman for the second of his two wins (2007, 2009). Saphir Du Rheu will have to put up a Denman-esque performance to win on Saturday.
His style of racing should help though as he likes to be ridden relatively close to the pace, jumps well and stays strong. If he wins with top-weight on his back – he’ll be a serious contender in the Cheltenham Gold Cup picture.
He beat The Young Master at Carlisle earlier this month and even though Neill Mullholland’s runner gets a further tug at the weights -he’ll need it. Going through the gears in handicaps is one thing but Saphir Du Rheu was never a handicapper and should have too much class for him again.
The Druids Nephew is still in at the five-day stage and I’d fancy him to be among the placed horses if trainer Neill Mullholland decides to run both.
My idea of the likely winner though is Nicky Henderson’s former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth. He showed signs of his old sparkle at Aintree when beating Simonsig over hurdles and is 13lbs lower than his 2012 win in this race.
Smad Place was impressive at Kempton and Alan King’s horses are in good form. We found out last year with Djakadam that you need to be race-fit going into these top races. King hasn’t made the same mistake twice and Smad Place finished fifth last year.
Of the others further down the weights, both Fingal Bay and Urano appeal as the types who could run into the places.
Fingal Bay was pulled up under 11-8 here last year but carries practically a stone less on Saturday and was second to Smad Place at Kempton while Willie Mullins’ Urano was just chinned in the 3m Kerry National at Listowel in heavy ground and has a lovely racing weight here again. He’s a good jumper, stays well and likes to creep into his races and could out-run his price.
Ballycasey’s form was patchy last season but his record shows that he goes best fresh.
Fighting Fifth Hurdle, Saturday Newcastle, 2.05pm
I rode Wicklow Brave in his work this morning (Tuesday) and he seems in great form. He’ll need a career best to beat Irving – who sets the standard – but is going the right way.
After his close up third to Nichols Canyon and Faugheen at Punchestown how much more does he has to improve to win this?
The big question is whether two races in quick succession will take the gloss off Irving.
Identity Thief is the other Irish challenger and was impressive when winning at Down Royal last month. If Hargam, Beltor and Top Notch all turn up it will be interesting to see which of the four-year-olds come out in top in what looks a decent contest.
Long Distance Hurdle, Saturday, Newbury, 2.25pm
I get the feeling that people thought Cole Harden’s win in the World Hurdle was a fluke. But they’re wrong.
There’s plenty willing to take him on again on Saturday but he won first time up at Wetherby last season before finishing second in this last year. Granted, Whisper did beat him at Aintree but Nicky Henderson’s runner was the fresher horse that day and really appreciated good ground.
I rode Thistlecrack> to win a novice hurdle at Ascot and a nice horse who is improving. He’ll have to have made that improvement over the summer to reach the level Cole Harden has set though. Menorah is high-class horse and the closest to the top two in the market on ratings. I’m not so sure 3m in what will be a true stamina test will suit him though.
Vautour was workman-like at Ascot last weekend but I did say beforehand that it wouldn’t be a stroll in the park as Ptit Zig is no mug and he pushed us all the way.
But we still beat Third Intention by 33 lengths and he’s rated 160. Even if his rating is inflated a little that’s still solid form.
It’s funny. People said at Ascot that Vautour he jumped to his left while at Cheltenham over hurdles he jumped slightly to his right. I don’t think it makes a big difference to him.
Douvan was never out of third gear at Navan and did everything I expected him to do. He fluffed his lines slightly at the last but that’s probably because he wasn’t going fast enough. He shot be spot on now for Leopardstown over Christmas.
Annie Power’s season has taken a knock so we’re not going to rush her. She proved last year that she can still arrive at Cheltenham and be at her best. Until the last hurdle anyway ….