Hammond's Hennessy countdown
By Alex Hammond
Last Updated: 28/11/15 3:24pm
Sky Sports News' Alex Hammond answers five key questions heading into Hennessy Gold Cup weekend.
1) The absence of Coneygree has changed the face of Saturday's Hennessy Gold Cup, but it's still sure to be a cracking contest. Are you siding with the potential of Saphir Du Rheu, the past experience and proven form of Bobs Worth, or has something else taken your eye in the line-up?
Saphir Du Rheu may with hindsight have looked potentially well treated off a mark of 163 when we look back at this race in the coming months. I hope he makes up into a Gold Cup contender for Paul Nicholls, who has made no secret of the fact he loves this grey. Saphir has a growing fan club of which I'm definitely a member of. He has to lug top weight around now that Coneygree stays at home which isn't ideal, but if he's as good as Nicholls hopes he is that shouldn't be a problem. The only thing that puts me off backing him on Saturday is the price (7/2 with Sky Bet) and I'll be happy to watch him run without any of my money on. He is one of my horses to follow though so I hope he runs a big race. I'll be having a pound or two on Bobs Worth at the prices (11/2 second favourite) as he looked full of his old verve over hurdles at Aintree three weeks ago when beating stable mate Simonsig. Let's not forget he is a brilliant Gold Cup winner and has four grade 1 races on his CV. Another positive is his rating which is 7lbs lower than when winning this race two years ago, so plenty points towards a big run on Saturday. I just hope there isn't too much rain for Nicky Henderson's charge. Henderson must be feeling like a kid at Christmas at the moment. His team have done a marvellous job to get horses like Bobs Worth and Sprinter Sacre back after looking like their best days were behind them. Of the other runners Urano at 22/1 could be one to back each way. This is a horse that has always appeared to fall a touch short given his heady reputation when he came over from France, but despite the fact he appears to lose races you sometimes think he should have won, he has still won 6 of his 24 starts and been placed a further 10 times. He won't mind conditions if the rain comes and the ground gets testing and he has proven recently that this sort of trip is within his compass. Smad Place was fancied for this race last year, but came up short when not fit enough by trainer Alan King's own admission. He has had a different prep this time round and has been supported this week. Fingal Bay broke blood vessels in this last year, but is looking well handicapped off 144 for Philip Hobbs.
2) World Hurdle winner Cole Harden returns to action against Whisper elsewhere on Saturday's Newbury card. Where will your money be going in the Long Distance Hurdle?
Cole Harden is an old friend of mine having backed him in the World Hurdle last season and at this point you'll do well to get me to desert him! Granted Whisper is favourite (15/8 with Sky Bet) and that is because he beat Cole Harden (9/4) in the Liverpool Hurdle in April and is slightly favoured at the weights on Saturday. Both of the protagonists would prefer better ground, but that is what we have to deal with and it's the same for both. They do have form on testing ground, but would prefer better. Warren Greatrex has said he has had Cole Harden's wind done again in the off season, meaning he has had a breathing operation, and he has given him plenty of time to reach peak fitness at home and hasn't rushed him. Thistlecrack comes from the bang in-form yard of Colin Tizzard and whilst he is improving, he has a little way to go to match the top two. Greatrex is aiming to keep Cole Harden fresher this season with fewer appearances on the track and I hope he can get his season off to a good start, he's my pick.
3) Having had a good year on the Flat, Wicklow Brave wasn't beaten far behind Nichols Canyon and Faugheen in the Morgiana. Will he justify being supplemented into the line-up for the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle?
Anything Willie Mullins supplements for a race of this status is worthy of huge respect and Wicklow Brave is top rated in the race. Ruby Walsh heads to Newcastle rather than go to Newbury to ride outsider Urano in the Hennessy, but he's 13/8 favourite which doesn't particularly scream 'back me'. He completed the 1-2-3 for Willie Mullins in that Punchestown Grade 1 two weeks ago behind Nichols Canyon and Faugheen and comes here deserving of a big race win. For a horse that is usually considered best fresh, Irving did well to back up his Elite Hurdle win in the Price Rush Hurdle at Haydock last weekend, two weeks after his Wincanton exertions. Paul Nicholls decided to run last week because of the prize money on offer and jockey Nick Scholfield felt he didn't have a hard race in winning there and was keen to see him out again this weekend. Is it going to the well one time too many? We'll find out as he bids for back to back wins in this Grade 1, but he hasn't done anything wrong this campaign so far. I fancied Top Notch in that Haydock race and thought Nicky Henderson's Triumph runner up ran a storming race on his seasonal debut to finish second. At 6/1 with Sky Bet I'd be inclined to stick with him here and I'm looking forward to seeing him run his usual game race.
4) What did you make of the performances of Cue Card and Vautour last weekend? Who's your cash on for the King George?
As followers of this blog know, I fancied Cue Card to win the Betfair Chase last weekend and I was pleased to see my faith in him vindicated as he romped to his second win of the new season. He seems as good as ever and has been rejuvenated by a breathing operation, and if Nicky Henderson can feel pleased with himself for his masterful handling of the likes of Bobs Worth and Sprinter Sacre, then Colin Tizzard is entitled to feel pretty smug for bringing back a horse that many had consigned to the scrap heap. He is still only 9 years old and whilst he has failed to set the King George alight in three attempts so far, he seems to be staying better the older he gets and 3 miles is his trip nowadays. He's now 9/2 with Sky Bet for the Kempton race and is hard to leave out of calculations. Vautour is 11/4 favourite for the Christmas showpiece despite a workmanlike performance at Ascot. After he blew the JLT field apart at Cheltenham the world looked to be his oyster and initially it was a touch disappointing to see Ruby having to get serious to beat Ptit Zig by just under 2 lengths. This was just a starting point though and the runner up is a smart, race fit horse. Paddock watchers thought he looked portly beforehand which was to be expected as we knew he would need the run and this was just the first step on a long road. As for the King George, I've had an interest in Don Cossack. He is currently 7/2 with Sky Bet and has won his last four, three in grade 1 company.
5) Have you had a chance to see the 'Being AP' film? When is 'Being AH' coming out?
Unfortunately I haven't seen the film yet, although I hear great things about it. I had to decline the invitation to the glitzy premier due to my early start at Sky Sports News on Tuesday morning. I'll have to try and see it somewhere else asAP! As for 'Being AH', the short answer is 'never'! What AP has achieved throughout his life is phenomenal. To stay at the top of your sport for the best part of a quarter of a century is not just remarkable, but almost unbelievable. Not only has AP dominated for so long, but he's like the bionic man, how he has come back from so many bone crunching injuries is something us ordinary beings can't imagine, he has taken the game to a whole new level.