Donn's Articles » Hennessy day: Cheltenham clues

Hennessy day: Cheltenham clues

History dictates that last Sunday’s Leopardstown’s Hennessy Gold Cup day will be a fertile ground for Cheltenham Festival winners.

The Spring Juvenile hurdle has produced two Triumph Hurdle winners and two runners-up in the last three years, the Deloitte Hurdle has produced eight Cheltenham winners in the last 20 years, and the Dr PJ Moriarty Chase has produced four RSA Chase winners and an Arkle winner in the last five years.

Last year, Hennessy day was particularly fruitful. Of the eight horses who won at Leopardstown on the day, three of them (Our Conor, Champagne Fever and Salsify) won at Cheltenham, while two of them (Sir Des Champs and Tennis Cap) finished second. Also, Flaxen Flare and Lord Windermere, both beaten on Hennessy day, went on to win at Cheltenham.

This year, it could pay to look back on last Sunday’s Hennessy day with one eye looking forward to Cheltenham.

1. Last Gold Cup

It was important that, with last year’s Gold Cup runner-up Sir Des Champs on the easy list for the rest of the season, the Hennessy Gold Cup itself should throw up a new Irish Gold Cup contender, and it did in the form of Last Instalment.

In many ways, he was the forgotten player in the piece. Trainer Philip Fenton said before the race that he would improve for the run, his owner’s rider Bryan Cooper chose to ride First Lieutenant instead, and Last Instalment was desperately weak in the pre-race market. Despite all that, the performance that he put up in winning the race was the performance of a truly high-class individual.

His jumping was superb, he picked up impressively at the back of the second last fence, jumped the last four lengths clear, then pricked his ears and put eight lengths between himself and his rivals before he reached the winning line.

The Gigginstown House horse was the best staying novice chaser in Ireland two seasons ago before injury intervened. He was unbeaten in four runs. Interestingly, using First Lieutenant as a barometer, the balance of their respective form suggests that there is very little between him and Gold Cup favourite Bobs Worth.

There would be a worry about the Irish horse if the ground were to come up good or faster on Gold Cup day. Not that he doesn’t handle good ground – on the contrary, he won the Topaz Chase by six lengths in 2011 on good ground – but he may not be risked if the ground is too fast. Owner Michael O’Leary says that he has glass legs.

That said, if there is a little bit of cut in the ground, he would have a real chance of becoming the first horse to do the Hennessy/Gold Cup double since Imperial Call in 1996, and of bringing the Cheltenham Gold Cup back to Ireland for the first time since the same owner’s War Of Attrition did so in 2006.

2. Vautour supreme

Vautour looked good in winning the Deloitte Hurdle on Sunday, and he was immediately promoted to the head of the betting for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

The sectional times tell you that he was the beneficiary of a superbly-judged front-running ride from Ruby Walsh, but there was still a lot to like about the manner in which he picked up off the home turn and galloped up the hill and all the way to the line.

Runner-up The Tullow Tank is a top class novice hurdler, a dual Grade 1 winner, and he could only give valiant chase. At no point did you think that he was going to catch Vautour, despite the fact that he pulled 12 lengths clear of the rest of the field. Philip Fenton’s horse will now step up in trip for the Neptune Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Champagne Fever – owned, like Vautour, by Susannah Ricci and trained by Willie Mullins – won the Deloitte last year before landing the curtain-raiser at Cheltenham, and there is every chance that Vautour will follow in his footsteps.

3. Emulating Our Conor

There was something comfortingly familiar about a Dessie Hughes-trained third favourite winning the Spring Juvenile Hurdle. While Guitar Pete has a fair way to go if he is to emulate record-breaking Triumph Hurdle winner Our Conor’s feat, he is a likeable sort with a willing attitude who jumps hurdles well and who is improving with every race. Like his stable companion, he is much better over hurdles than he was on the flat, he has never been out of the first two in six races over hurdles, and he deserves his shot at the Triumph Hurdle.

Runner-up Tiger Roll will join him again at Cheltenham. The Gigginstown House horse ran a massive race to finish second on just his second ever run and his first for Gordon Elliott. It is reasonable to expect that he will improve for this experience, and he could be an interesting outsider in the Triumph.

4. RSA pointers

Ballycasey did well to win the Dr PJ Moriarty on Sunday, not only because it was just his second ever run over fences, or because he was an 11th-hour deputy for his stable companion Champagne Fever, but also because he was taking on two of the best young staying chasers in Ireland.

It was only a three-horse race, but all three faced up to the final fence together, lined across the track, anybody’s race. However, whereas Carlingford Lough got in tight, made a mistake and unseated his rider, Ballycasey jumped the fence well and stayed on strongly up the hill to beat Don Cossack by four lengths. He deserves to be favourite for the RSA Chase now, although the teak-tough Carlingford Lough was not beaten when he departed, and he deserves another chance.

5. Time enough

Never Enough Time was an impressive winner of the two-mile handicap hurdle on Sunday, JP McManus’ horse showing a fine turn of foot to go clear on the run-in.

The Tom Foley-trained gelding, winner of just one of his first eight races over hurdles, has now won his last two by an aggregate of 14 lengths. He is seriously progressive, and he deserves to take his chance in one of the handicap hurdles at Cheltenham. The handicapper raised him 10lb for this, but Tennis Cap, who won the Leopardstown race last year, went to Cheltenham and finished second to Ted Veale in the County Hurdle off a 14lb higher mark.

It is difficult to believe that it is 20 years since the same Tom Foley brought Danoli to Cheltenham and raised the roof. There could be similar scenes in the Cotwolds in just over three weeks.

© The Sunday Times, 16th February 2014