This coming Saturday sees the most long-standing sponsorship in racing — the Hennessy Gold Cup — return to Newbury in what looks likely to be an outstanding event. The Hennessy holds a special place in the affections of National Hunt fans, for whom March’s Cheltenham Festival is not solely the be all and end all of the sport. Run over a little more than three miles in front of relentlessly packed stands, the biggest chase handicap outside of the Grand National is a spectacle to warm the hearts.
This year we have the defending Gold-Cup winner Coneygree seeking to make history by defying top weight and justifying near-enough favouritism in what could turn out to be a defining moment in racing history. It was not all that long ago that the mighty Denman seared himself into the affections of the racing public by grinding quality rivals into submission off top weight with a performance that many go many decades without seeing.
Coneygree can do it again — and if he does, he will cement his place as the undisputed kingpin in a vintage crop of staying chasers. He remains lightly raced, his connections are delightfully potty and he epitomises everything that we hold dear when looking forward to weekend racing.
In Saphir Du Rheu he faces a top-quality rival in whom the highest confidence has been placed by his celebrated connections for some time. Throw in Bob’s Worth, Smad Place and my old pal Houblon Des Obeaux and there can be few who will object to my assertion that this weekend we can look forward to the race of the season and something to warm the winter cockles.
The latest initiative from racing’s marketing department is the revival of jump racing’s Triple Crown — a £1 million bonus to any horse able to win the Betfair Gold Cup (which took place last Saturday), plus Boxing Day’s King George and the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March. Kauto Star accomplished this rare feat some half a dozen or so years ago and it cost the sponsors a cool million. Unsurprisingly, it soon was discontinued.
It’s back again now and following Cue Card’s victory at Haydock on Saturday he has two legs to go. Or does he? Well the bookies make him a relatively dismissive 33/1 to scoop the big pot. He’s prominent enough in the Boxing Day betting at 5/1 or thereabouts, but is a much bigger price for the Gold Cup. By way of reference, he is half the price to win the Ryanair Chase which would see him swerve the chance to even go for gold, even if he does triumph on Boxing Day.
For me, it’s a needless sideshow to the natural flow of the National Hunt season, which is in rattling good health as it is without the need for marketing gimmicks. We get a lot wrong in racing, but the flow of big races from November through to March is not one of them. And dangling a massive carrot in the form of a million quid is not money well spent. Re-invest those funds lower down the food chain to elevate some of the humdrum run-of-the-mill small-field stuff that turns horsemen and punters off in an instant.
It’s hard to ignore the Christmas carols, artificial snow in the shop windows and the general sense of financial foreboding that indicates that the season of goodwill is rattling down the line. Not so, it seems, in the precarious world of racing politics.
The latest fallout has come about between Betfred and Jockey Club Racecourses over sponsorship of the Gold Cup. The end result is that the Gold Cup has no sponsor. Many industry commentators have suggested that racing’s power-brokers are playing a multi-million pound game of poker with the bookies and most of the bookies appear willing to see how the cards fall. It’s all beginning to unravel, and the festive exchange of bottles of port between racing and betting looks likely to skip a year at least.
Rather than tip one (beyond Coneygree) for the weekend, I’m going on record as keeping the faith with Phillip Hobbs’ Brother Tedd, who lost little in defeat behind Rock On Ruby at Ascot at the weekend. He would have benefitted from a truer gallop and lacked the acceleration when the race turned into a sprint. Better things can be expected and we might be able to sneak a fancier price next time out in a race that goes at a decent clip from the off. In the fullness of time, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him develop into a top three-mile hurdler.