The Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury on Saturday looked a typically competitive renewal on paper, with an interesting mix of battle-hardened campaigners and second-season chasers featuring in a field of 19. Members of the latter category filled five of the first six places in the betting and favourite Native River duly obliged for the up-and-coming crop of staying chasers with a half-length defeat of Carole's Destrier (up 6 lb to 154).
Native River can be rated as better than that official winning margin, appearing to idle upon landing over the last and finding enough once challenged to suggest there was still something left in the locker. He has been put up 7 lb to 164p on the back of that effort and, while that is still some 15 lb below the figure Don Cossack recorded when winning this year's Gold Cup, Native River remains open to more improvement over fences and the blue riband of jumps racing has to be considered a realistic target.
Native River's win was the highlight of another fantastic Saturday for the Colin Tizzard yard, which began with another dominant victory for the force of nature that is Thistlecrack (up 9 lb to 158P). Last year's leading staying hurdler took his record over fences to three wins from three starts with the minimum of fuss in the Grade 2 novice chase over three miles, showing little of the overexuberance which had caused moments of concern on his penultimate start at Cheltenham and producing an effort that did little to dispel talk of an outing in the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day. He also has the same day's Kauto Star Novices' Chase (Feltham) as an option, but a Gold Cup bid (and a potential clash with stablemates Cue Card and Native River) remains the ultimate goal for this most exciting prospect.
The staying hurdling division is wide open in Thistlecrack's absence and Unowhatimeanharry (up 14 lb to 162) laid down an early marker when pulling six-lengths clear of Ballyoptic (155 from 158p) in the Long Distance Hurdle on Friday's card. He is now unbeaten in six starts for the Harry Fry yard and trails only Faugheen in most ante-post lists for the World Hurdle at Cheltenham, although the likely make-up of that race remains something of a mystery at this stage. Unowhatimeanharry now goes to the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot next month and it is hoped that that race will provide some more clues.
Meanwhile, Clan des Obeaux (143p from 125P) marked himself down as a novice chaser to follow when running out a 10-length winner of the preceding Grade 2. That represented as good an effort as anything he had produced in a promising juvenile campaign over hurdles and Clan des Obeaux has all the makings of a top-class staying chaser in the future, although trainer Paul Nicholls is reportedly keen not to overface his charge this year.
The champion trainer also landed the feature race at Newcastle on Saturday, the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle. Irving (remains on 155) didn't need to improve to repeat his 2014 heroics, but Nicholls still produced a fine training performance to get him back to his best after a disappointing end to last season (reported to have had plenty of problems). Saturday's race may not have been the strongest for the grade and Irving is set to step up to two and a half miles for his next start, a comment that also applies to the rejuvenated runner-up, Apple's Jade (remains on 153).
Gordon Elliott may have missed out with the latter on Tyneside, but the County Meath trainer could do no wrong at Navan on Sunday and his six winners included the impressive success of Empire of Dirt (up 8 lb to 159) in the valuable Troytown Handicap Chase. The very smart form he showed in defying a big weight suggests he could yet be capable of holding his own in graded company, but Elliott was quick to identify the Grand National as an appropriate end-of-season target and may not want to compromise his chance with a further hike in the weights. The same connections' Death Duty (up 10 lb to 142p) was a dominant winner of the 'Monksfield' Novice Hurdle on the same card and looks a prime candidate for the top staying novice hurdles, with the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham reportedly his goal.
Finally, Min (150P) produced a smart level of form at the first time of asking over fences, travelling strongly on the front end throughout and quickly drawing clear in what was a polished effort from one so inexperienced. His only defeat as a novice hurdler came at the hands of Altior in the Supreme at Cheltenham and the likelihood of the pair renewing rivalry in the Arkle next March is already a mouth-watering prospect. Min will now bid to follow in the footsteps of Douvan and win the Racing Post Novices' Chase at Leopardstown on Boxing Day.