Donn's Articles » Hennessy Gold Cup

Hennessy Gold Cup

It is 16 years ago today that Imperial Call and Conor O’Dwyer jumped the final fence in the Hennessy Gold Cup and powered up Leopardstown’s hill to come clear of Master Oats and announce himself as a genuine Cheltenham Gold Cup contender.

Nothing was going to beat One Man at Cheltenham though, that was the general consensus. So when Gordon Richards’s gelding and his Irish whipper-snapper adversary converged in a pincer movement around Couldn’t Be Better on the run down the hill to the third last fence in the Gold Cup the following month, and Conor O’Dwyer – like Imperial Call, a Gold Cup debutant – gave his horse a little squeeze, it was interesting that Richard Dunwoody should shout over to say that Conor shouldn’t be going for home so early, that there was still a long way to go.

Gold Cup virgin he may have been, but O’Dwyer knew enough about the game to know to ignore the advice of a wily rival on the field of play. That’s jump jockeys for you: the closest of comrades off the pitch, the fiercest of rivals on it.  He also knew that his horse would stay, and that if the grey horse beside him had an Achilles Heel, it was his stamina. The rider squeezed Imperial Call into the home turn and kicked off it as One Man floundered, and he didn’t stop kicking and squeezing until he sat back down in the saddle after he had crossed the winning line, his first Cheltenham Gold Cup in the bag.

Three years earlier, Mark Dwyer had pulled Jodami up in the same spot, beyond the Cheltenham winning line, under the spotlight that follows the Gold Cup winner. Like Imperial Call, Jodami had landed the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on his last run before Cheltenham.

As a Cheltenham Gold Cup pointer, Leopardstown’s Hennessy Gold Cup wasn’t doing too badly then. Ten renewals since its inauguration as the Vincent O’Brien Irish Gold Cup, six individual winners, two Cheltenham Gold Cup follow-ups. It wasn’t a bad return. It was correct that the premier staying steeplechase in Ireland should produce Cheltenham Gold Cup winners. Plenty of them.

It is a little disconcerting, then, that no horse has won both races since. Sixteen years since Imperial Call, 15 renewals, and no Hennessy winner has followed up at Cheltenham.

Florida Pearl came closest. Florida Pearl was a remarkable staying chaser, four Hennessys to his name, a hat-trick when he was in his pomp, and another when he returned as a 12-year-old in 2004 to win the race once more in what turned out, quite fittingly, to be the swansong of his career.

In 1999, Florida Pearl won the Hennessy and finished third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. In 2000, he won the Hennessy and finished second in the Gold Cup. In 2001, he won the Hennessy again, but any thoughts that Willie Mullins and Archie O’Leary had of continuing the Cheltenham sequence and climbing one more rung up the ladder and into the winner’s enclosure that year were scuppered when Foot and Mouth intervened.

It wasn’t that Florida Pearl wasn’t a Cheltenham horse – on his first two visits there he won the Champion Bumper and the RSA Chase – it was just that the hill and the extra two and a half furlongs of the Gold Cup seemed to stretch his stamina out beyond what he had in the locker. Standard time for the Hennessy is 6mins 5secs, standard time for the Gold Cup is 6mins 39secs. Those extra 34secs demand a whole lot more stamina.

By contrast, Beef Or Salmon simply wasn’t a Cheltenham horse. Michael Hourigan’s gelding was at his happiest when he was galloping and jumping around Leopardstown, straight down the back straight, turn around, straight up the home straight. No hills, no dales, just flat and gallop and soft ground.

In 2003, still a novice, he won the Hennessy, but fell at the third fence in the Gold Cup. In 2006, he won the Hennessy again, beating Hedgehunter by 12 lengths, then finished 11th in the Gold Cup as War Of Attrition beat the same Hedgehunter by just two and a half. In 2007, when he won the Hennessy again, Hourigan said, one more go at Cheltenham, in blinkers this time. He finished 13th.

Dorans Pride was third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup six weeks after he won the 1998 Hennessy, Neptune Collonges was fourth in the Gold Cup four weeks after he had won the Hennessy in 2009. It isn’t that Hennessy winners haven’t been running well at Cheltenham, they just haven’t been winning.

Perhaps the proximity of the two races makes it difficult. Whatever wins this afternoon’s Hennessy will have just four weeks and five days to recover from what will probably be a supreme effort today, over three miles on testing ground, if he is to try to follow up in the Gold Cup. It may not be insignificant that the two Irish-trained winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup since Imperial Call, Kicking King and War Of Attrition, both by-passed the Hennessy, both going straight from Christmas to Cheltenham.

It may be that the challenges posed by the two races are just too dissimilar for a strong correlation to be fostered. The Hennessy is run over three miles on a flat track usually on soft ground, the Gold Cup is run over an extended three and a quarter miles on an undulating track usually on good ground. Disparate attributes are required for victory in the different races.

There is also a chance that the quality of recent Hennessy fields just hasn’t been good enough. That hypothesis is given extra credence by this afternoon’s renewal, a race in which no horse can boast an official rating of higher than 154 – some 29lb inferior to Kauto Star and 28lb inferior to Long Run.

The defection of Lexus Chase winner Synchronised – as short as 10/1 for the Gold Cup – has robbed today’s race of some of its lustre, and the fact that JP McManus’s horse has been joined on the absentee list by Jessies Dream and Quito De La Roque hasn’t helped. It is also disappointing that the race hasn’t attracted even a lone British representative, despite the fact that the elements are currently wreaking havoc with fixtures across the water.

In favour of this afternoon’s renewal, however, is the fact that the top four in the market have lots of potential and significant scope for progression. Any one of them would have to improve considerably in order to even make up into a Gold Cup contender. It is improbable, of course, but it is not impossible.

Quel Esprit and Magnanimity are both exciting young lightly-raced chasers, Bostons Angel was a triple-Grade 1 winning novice last term, and China Rock was the equal of Sizing Europe over today’s trip at the beginning of last season. Three second-season chasers and one third-season chaser with an average of just eight runs over fences each, if one of these four lands today’s contest, then the Gold Cup is the next logical target.

Tread warily though. History will be against him.

© The Sunday Times, 12th February 2012