When big guns such as Coneygree, Many Clouds, Don Poli, Vroum Vroum Mag, Valseur Lido and Sausalito Sunrise were being mooted for the race, as well as Paul Nicholls’s rising star Saphir Du Rheu, a real Hennessy humdinger looked on the cards.
It didn’t quite materialise, thanks to a string of defections for various reasons. But Newbury’s annual showpiece chase on Saturday still threw up a wonderful winner in Alan King’s grey, Smad Place.
In returning to his best form, the eight-year-old maintained the remarkable theme that has dominated the Jumps season so far, following in the bouncebackability hoofprints of Cue Card, Sprinter Sacre, More Of That and Sir Des Champs, not to mention Paddy Power Gold Cup winner Annacotty, also trained by King.
Smad Place was running off the same handicap mark of 155 he was allotted in last year’s Hennessy when he was strongly fancied but finished a distant, if respectable, fifth. The reason behind the exuberant transformation we witnessed at the weekend was threefold.
Firstly, like Cue Card, he’d undergone a minor wind operation to cure a trapped epilglottis, a condition fast becoming racing’s equivalent to football’s curio of the metatarsal injury! Secondly, King gave him a crucial prep run at Kempton, making amends for a self-confessed error last term when his charge went straight to Newbury.
But arguably the key reason was a significant change in riding tactics. It has largely been forgotten that, at the time of the 2014 race, both of King’s jockeys, Choc Thornton and Wayne Hutchinson, were injured. It resulted in Denis O’Regan getting the mount, but giving Smad Place far too much to do on a horse he’d not ridden before. The effort needed to get into contention took so much out of the horse that he never fully recovered for the rest of a disappointing campaign. In King’s words, the Hennessy “completely nailed him”.
The admirable Hutchinson was back in the saddle on Saturday and adopted the prominent, aggressive approach that had found so much favour with the grey at Kempton. Such was the relentless rhythm of his gallop on testing ground, you felt sure it would take its toll in the home straight. But the French-bred actually found more and powered home in the style of a horse who would lap up the extreme trip of the Grand National.
Unlike Many Clouds, the 2014 Hennessy hero, Smad Place won’t be going to Aintree, however. Owner Trish Andrews is no fan of the race, and its perceived dangers, even though husband Peter is a dyed-in-the-wool Scouser! Furthermore, the grey’s official rating of 155 is likely to balloon to levels unmanageable in handicaps. Instead he will have a second crack at the Cheltenham Gold Cup and return to a course where he has already been placed in an RSA Chase and two World Hurdles, including one not far behind the mighty Big Buck’s.
Last season’s Gold Cup bid ended in laboured failure, but such a Cheltenham record underlines the class of an animal undoubtedly revitalised. King was quick to praise the initiative of the 34-year-old Hutchinson, whose career was far too long in the shadows of the now-retired Thornton. He was also quick to pay tribute to groom John Goggin, who used to ride Smad Place at his Barbury Castle yard but who had tragically died only days earlier after a car accident.
Emotions, running high, added poignancy to a Hennessy Day that lived up to its reputation as a raucous and rumbustious occasion, showcasing the rawest roots of our winter sport. The sight of a grey bounding clear in a major race even evoked memories of the iconic Desert Orchid. Memories that wrapped up the meeting too as veteran Grey Gold rallied on the run-in to take the final race in a fashion strikingly reminiscent of Dessie’s golden eclipse of Yahoo in the Gold Cup of 1989.
It all delighted the biggest Hennessy Day crowd for 20 years and made those of us who cherish the three-day meeting, and make it an annual pilgrimage, wonder why Newbury has taken the decision to downsize it from next year. At first, the decision seemed an over-reaction to the ridiculously small fields that blighted the opening day of last season. But I suspect it is a commercial judgement based on the track’s struggle to market the meeting effectively as a three-day package.
Public interest in the first day, on the Thursday, is sadly slim, so the plan is to condense the quality into two days and switch the Grade Two Long Distance Hurdle to headline a Friday card that, hopefully, will attract terrestrial TV coverage.
I accept that of the 21 races under the current arrangement, two or three of the meeting’s ordinary handicaps could safely be lost. But the meeting is also renowned for novice events that are extremely informative and educational for punters, trainers and owners alike. Sacrificing them would be a regressive move.
HENNESSY MEETING HORSES TO FOLLOW -- BUVEUR D’AIR (Nicky Henderson novice hurdler), IBIS DU RHEU (Paul Nicholls handicap hurdler), KASAKH NOIR (Dan Skelton juvenile hurdler), KIR ROYAL (Alan King bumper filly), LA VATICANE (David Pipe handicap chaser), MINELLA AWARDS (Nicky Henderson novice hurdler), THISTLECRACK (Colin Tizzard staying hurdler), THREE MUSKETEERS (Dan Skelton novice chaser) and WARRIORS TALE (Paul Nicholls novice/handicap chaser).