Obeaux to stir Denman memories?
Matt Brocklebank sets the scene ahead of the start of a brilliant two days' racing at "one of the best meetings of the year."
Denman, Sizing Europe, Coneygree, Bobs Worth, Big Buck's, Inglis Drever, Thistlecrack, Rock On Ruby. Cheltenham Festival winners all, but there's a case to be made for it being Newbury where the key components of their burgeoning careers were initially forged.
Sam Thomas will be among those not in need of reminding the fact that Big Buck's, whose first three starts for Paul Nicholls came in novice chases at this venue in 2007, was switched back to hurdles after unseating in the following year's Hennessy Gold Cup. He went on to win four Long Distance Hurdles.
Sizing Europe's first-ever outing over timber came in the 2006 running of today's maiden; Rock On Ruby was fourth to Oscar Whisky in the bumper here first time out before scoring by six lengths in the 2010 Introductory Hurdle, while Coneygree's chasing debut at this fixture two years ago was a sight to behold and Thistlecrack's Long Distance win last term represented a sit-up-and-take-note performance of which we are still feeling the effects.
Memories of Denman barely need reawakening, but he surely would not be recalled so fondly were it not for his epic Hennessy victories.
The point of this indulgent and admittedly short-sighted trip down memory lane is to attempt to highlight the plain obvious: Newbury's Hennessy meeting – the bet365 Festival in its current two-day guise – has the richest of histories.
Saturday promises to make significant waves in the staying chase division once more as Thistlecrack writes the next chapter of his remarkable story and several young bucks attempt to muscle in on the Gold Cup picture themselves in the meeting's principal handicap, but today's action is not to be missed for a multitude of reasons.
The fixture has this year been shorn of a day but the quality may just have intensified as a result and sparks should fly in the opening bet365 "National Hunt" Maiden Hurdle.
Harry Fry will be hoping Bags Groove could one day become something akin to the next Rock On Ruby and French recruit Captain Forez clearly catches the eye on his first start for Dan Skelton in the silks of John Hales, but it's all about Jenkins, a talking horse that walked the walk with a nine-length demolition job at this course on his April bow.
A surprise defeat followed at Punchestown but it was more near-miss than head-scratching reverse all things considered, and subsequent wins for the third, the fourth and the eighth that day suggest Nicky Henderson and Pump & Plant Services Ltd have a lot to look forward to.
Unless the heavens open he'll be devilishly difficult to beat on what is effectively Henderson's home patch after all, while Alan King – a Lanarkshire lad but very much local to these parts these days – is likely to have Winner Massagot nicely tuned up for his chasing introduction from a workable-looking mark in the bet365 Chase (A Novices' Limited Handicap).
Here is a horse whose quality is undoubted but there must be question marks over quite how easy he's been to train and could realistically run a rip-snorter of a race only to finish fourth, given the strength in depth to this contest.
Malcolm Jefferson sends the thriving Double W's down from Norton and his loyal northern followers may be pleasantly surprised by his price. But Tom George, another fairly handily-placed trainer purely from a geographical perspective, looks to have an equally well-treated animal on his hands in seven-year-old Valseur Du Granval. His Chepstow triumph smacked of a horse only just beginning to cut his teeth.
One Track Mind is the proven Grade One winner tackling more daunting obstacles for the first time in public in the Grade Two Fuller's London Pride Novices' Chase and Warren Greatrex must have been tempted by the prospect of another year hurdling, starting in the big race on this card.
But it's fences instead for the Punchestown Festival hero and he provides a major stumbling block for Nicholls' Clan Des Obeaux, who definitely has a hint of the Denmans about him.
He's raw and big and gangly and ran like he needed his recent chasing debut. He'll be fitter and stronger for the experience and won first time out over hurdles here last December. In addition, this is a race Nicholls won three years ago with Wonderful Charm, and 10 years ago with… Denman.
Nicholls has won the bet365 Long Distance Hurdle five times in total, most recently in 2013 through Celestial Halo, when Reve De Sivola was third. He was also second to Big Buck's in 2012 and is obviously still going strong having beaten One Track Mind at Haydock earlier in the year.
He's 11 rising 12 and will do very well to fend off another emerging bunch of stayers which include Ballyoptic, who fell at Wetherby on his comeback but whose odds for this event contracted markedly following a Wednesday morning schooling session. One can only assume he's recovered from the tumble that left him winded on the West Yorkshire earth for a few worrying moments and if that's the case then he might just become a significant player on the Ryanair World Hurdle scene.
His former Betfair Hurdle-winning stablemate Splash Of Ginge is attractively treated as he bids to give Nigel Twiston-Davies back-to-back wins in the bet365 Open Handicap Chase, while Fry could round off a fine day with a double courtesy of Any Drama in the bet365 Novices' Hurdle and Behind Time, who escapes a penalty for his conditional jockeys' success at Cheltenham and looks to take full advantage of that particular assessing quirk in the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle.
Careers are moulded on days like these and history dictates we're going to witness winter racing at its finest for the next couple of days. Enjoy.
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