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Hennessy Gold Cup Preview: One big Doubt over Saphir du Rheu's chances
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Hennessy Gold Cup Preview: One big Doubt over Saphir du Rheu's chances

Keith Melrose lays out why it might be worth taking on the new favourite in Saturday's Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury.

For the second week running we were promised a moment of reckoning among the staying chasers and for the second week running we’ve been left disappointed. Following an all-too-familiar turnout for the first leg of the Chasing Triple Crown in the Betfair Chase, this Saturday’s Hennessy has been dented by the absence of Gold Cup winner Coneygree due to a minor setback. His meeting with Saphir du Rheu, along with a good handful of others looking to stake their own Gold Cup claims, was supposed to ignite the jumps season. Now, after this latest false prophecy, National Hunt fans might be starting to feel like members of some doomsday cult. Here’s hoping we’ll have our rapture yet, in the King George or the Lexus.

We needn’t get too gloomy, though, when the dream field for a race doesn’t arrive fully intact. Cue Card showed us in the Betfair Chase that even rematches can deliver moments to savour, and in Saturday’s Hennessy we’re still left with at least one credible Gold Cup aspirant: the new top weight, Saphir du Rheu.

There was initially some musing as to whether Coneygree’s withdrawal will prove good or bad news for Saphir du Rheu. The obvious answer to that would be: if you no longer have to beat the Gold Cup winner, your task will almost certainly be easier. That truism far outweighs the potential downsides, which are the raw weight of 11st 12lb that Saphir du Rheu will now have to carry (he lumped similar weights to win the Lanzarote and Welsh Champion Hurdle) and the more valid point that a rise of 9 lb in the weights allows succour to certain horses that could otherwise have been all but ruled out.

Take Ned Stark as an example. He’s probably had the Hennessy as his target all through the summer, yet connections were ready to take him to the Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle instead as he was due to be 6 lb ‘wrong’ against Coneygree. Now that problem doesn’t exist and he’ll surely run in the Hennessy from his true BHA mark of 140 rather than a forcibly-raised 146. He’d have a solid chance, too, having done much of his improving in the mud last winter (won a novice handicap at this meeting) and being just about the most unexposed runner in the field. Expect odds around 16/1 to contract gradually between now and Saturday.

Whatever Ned Stark’s true chances, you fancy he’ll still be Alan King’ second-best option. Smad Place appears to be the stable’s leading hope. He was fifth in this race last year from the same mark, but there are reasons to think he’ll do better now. Last year’s Hennessy was run in gruelling conditions, finding out all but the stoutest stayers. Smad Place probably doesn’t quite make it into that category, while he was also making his first start of the winter. This year, with less-testing conditions forecast and Smad Place race-fit from a pleasing win over Fingal Bay at Kempton, his chances of seeing the race out are much stronger and as such it’s easy to see him being involved in the finish.

There are a few others of note who also ran in last year’s race. Houblon des Obeaux was runner-up to Many Clouds and would be the most obvious place to turn were the rain to arrive between now and Saturday. He is dependent on the seasons to the point that he mirrors them: good efforts in the winter are followed by poor ones on livelier spring ground, allowing his mark to come back to a realistic level for the next winter’s campaign. In off a mark 1 lb lower than in 2014, Houblon des Obeaux is handicapped to put up another bold showing if conditions are right.

Like Smad Place, The Druids Nephew was also caught out by severely testing ground last year. He’s not short of stamina, either, as he subsequently won over 25 furlongs at the Festival and was still going as well as any five out in the Grand National, when he slithered on landing and fell. He needn’t be handicapped out of things rated 10 lb higher than when landing the Festival Trophy, especially as this race appeals as being right up his street when the going isn’t extreme.

Returning horses like Smad Place, Houblon des Obeaux and The Druids Nephew appeal as the type that will probably run well, but may struggle to win. The recommended bet comes from the other side completely. In his first season over fences, If In Doubt had as many non-completions as wins, mostly on account of slipshod jumping that often got him into trouble. He was at least consistent in leaving the impression that there’s a lot of talent to be unlocked should his jumping ever click.

If In Doubt won the SkyBet Chase back in January. It’s rare you’ll see such a big handicap won so easily with such a scrappy display of jumping. It spoke so highly of his ability that he ended up in the RSA Chase on his next start, when mistakes set him back at a crucial stage and he ended up a fast-finishing fifth when, on another day, he might have given Don Poli most to think about. There seems little doubt that he’s better than a BHA mark of 149 and that with a clear round he’ll show it.

There’s another Coneygree-related positive for If In Doubt, besides the obvious. The weight he’ll carry goes up from 10st 3 lb to 10st 12lb, which makes it highly likely that his owner’s retained jockey Barry Geraghty (who rarely goes lower than 10 st 6lb) will take the ride. Geraghty has already shown that he’s unfazed by taking over from AP McCoy, having worked the oracle on Pendra at Ascot a few weeks ago. If he can do the same on If In Doubt, the pair could conspire to divert Saphir du Rheu’s planned route to the Gold Cup in March.   

Recommended bet:

Back If In Doubt in the Hennessy Gold Cup

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