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Last year’s novices

The general feeling before Saturday’s Hennessy Gold Cup was that this year’s second-season staying chasers might not be a remarkable bunch. The general feeling afterwards is that they almost certainly are not.

The statistics are admittedly damning. The Hennessy Gold Cup is the quintessential second-season-chasers’ race. In order to win a Hennessy, you probably need to be capable of running to a handicap mark that is significantly higher than the mark off which you are set to compete. The type of horse that is most likely to have a significant amount in hand is the second-season chaser, last season’s novice who is progressing with age and with experience, and with whom the handicapper has yet to fully get to grips.

Before Saturday, eight of the previous 12 renewals of the Hennessy had been won by second-season chasers. This year, as usual, the sophomores were to the fore in ante post betting dispatches: Aiteen Thirtythree, Wayward Prince, Wymott, Michel Le Bon (a sophomore in all but the strictest interpretation of the term). Even on Saturday morning, four of the top five in the betting for the Hennessy, and six of the top eight, were second-season chasers.

As we know, the established brigade dominated, led by Carruthers, as established as they make them. Beshabar finished fifth, Wymott finished sixth, The Giant Bolster finished seventh, but no sophomore managed to finish in the first four.

The Hennessy result added weight to the argument that had been doing the rounds, that the sophomore class of 2011/12 may be a highly forgettable group. Time For Rupert was considered by many to be the best of the staying novice chasers last season, undefeated over fences before a broken blood vessel beat him in the RSA Chase. Yet he was out-gunned by Weird Al in the Charlie Hall Chase, and he was well beaten when pitched in against the very big guns in the Betfair Chase.

The first three home in last season’s Jewson Chase, Noble Prince, Wishfull Thinking and Loosen My Load, looked like a highly-talented triumvirate at the time, yet they have managed just two small wins (both at odds-on) between them in six collective attempts this term to date. Wishfull Thinking and Loosen My Load were both well beaten in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, while Noble Prince was put in his place by Big Zeb in the Fortria Chase, in receipt of 5lb.

That said, it may be a mistake to go giving up on last year’s novices at this stage. There have been mitigating circumstances.

Time For Rupert, remember, was one of the only horses who could put it up to Big Buck’s over hurdles. He was expected to come on significantly for his run in the Charlie Hall, a highly promising run in the circumstances then, and he probably wasn’t suited by the speed track that Haydock now is in the Betfair Chase. He may be a different proposition back at Cheltenham.

Loosen My Load was unsuited by the holding ground in the Paddy Power, and Wishfull Thinking faced a stiff task racing off a mark of 164. Exuberant racer though the Philip Hobbs horse is, he probably went off too quickly over the distance and on the ground, and it is interesting that the talk now is of dropping him back down to two miles for the Tingle Creek on Saturday. Also, sophomores filled five of the first six places in the Paddy Power, four of them racing from out of the handicap.

And actually, Noble Prince ran a cracker to go down by just two lengths in the Fortria Chase to Big Zeb, one of the best two-mile chasers that Ireland has produced since Moscow Flyer. Big Zeb had his optimum conditions in the Fortria and goes well fresh, whereas Noble Prince was racing over a trip that was probably too sharp and on ground that was probably too soft.

The Hennessy result may need a slightly higher leap of faith, but, unusually, several of the more established staying chasers were potentially well-handicapped this year. Great Endeavour was 6lb well-in after his Paddy Power Gold Cup win, Planet Of Sound was 8lb lower than his highest mark, Carruthers was 10lb lower than the mark off which he had finished sixth in the race last year.

Also, things didn’t pan out that well for the sophomores in the race. Wayward Prince made a horrendous mistake at the last fence on the first circuit, which effectively ended his chance. The ground was probably faster than ideal for Wymott, and he gave away ground by racing wide, while Sarando fell at the last fence in the back straight and interfered quite badly with The Giant Bolster, who was travelling well at the time.

Also, some of last year’s leading novice chasers were not in the Hennessy. Quito De La Roque, winner of five of his six chases last season, beat Sizing Europe and The Nightingale in the Champion Chase at Down Royal on his only race to date this term. Bostons Angel, winner of three Grade 1 chases last season, including the RSA Chase, was travelling well when unseating his rider in the Down Royal race, and we haven’t seen RSA Chase runner-up Jessies Dream to date this season.

These sophomores may yet have a say.

© The Racing Post, 29th November 2011