Simon Holt: Smad the pick
Channel 4 Racing commentator Simon Holt has two selections for Newbury's Hennessy Gold Cup card on Saturday.
Smad Place can defend his Hennessy crown
SMAD PLACE, a hugely impressive winner of last season's Hennessy Gold Cup, is fancied to repeat the feat despite an 11lb rise in the weights in Saturday's renewal.
Alan King's sound-jumping grey will be making his third appearance in Newbury's premier jumps race and should be spot on after an encouraging fourth at Aintree over two-and-a-half miles in what would have been a sharp enough test on good ground.
Having a prep-run is probably crucial to Smad Place's chance as, after finishing only fifth behind Many Clouds in this race two years ago, King was kicking himself for going to Newbury first time out.
Learning from that mistake, this high-quality chaser, a smart horse over hurdles who finished third in two World Hurdles, turned up for the 2015 Hennessy on the back of a win at Kempton and proceeded to destroy his rivals, looking the winner some way from home and slamming Theatre Guide by 12 lengths (Saphir Du Rheu fifth, Houblon Des Obeaux ninth).
There was no fluke about the performance as Smad Place went on to run creditably in both the King George and the Gold Cup in-between which he jumped superbly when coming well clear of Many Clouds and Theatre Guide at Cheltenham's Festival Trials meeting.
Victory off a rating of 166 and 11st 12lb top weight may well require a career-best effort but the Hennessy is a race in which class horses carrying big weights have traditionally done well and most of the selection's main rivals are closely-handicapped second-season chasers.
The strength of last season's novice chase form will certainly be put to the test here and Native River looks set to start favourite after his defeat of Henri Parry Morgan, Blaklion and Un Temps Pour Tout at Aintree in April.
Sharpened up by the fitting of cheekpieces, Colin Tizzard's rugged stayer improved considerably in the second half of the season having previously chased home Minella Rocco in the Cheltenham Festival four-miler (Vicente, subsequent Scottish National winner, fifth) and couldn't have made a better reappearance when splitting Silsol and Lil Rockerfeller over hurdles at Wetherby.
With the Tizzards in great form, Native River (a course winner a year ago) must have every chance and Richard Johnson is the ideal jockey to keep this sometimes idle galloper up to his work.
Another with a big chance is Blaklion who probably ran a few pounds below his rating when fourth to Irish Cavalier in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby last month but appeals as an ideal Hennessy type.
Sure-footed and game, last season's RSA Chase (Vyta Du Roc fifth) winner needed a couple of runs before striking winning form last term and should be spot on for this. It's possible that he may have been slightly below-form at Aintree following his Cheltenham exertions.
After the second at Aintree, Henri Parry Morgan was travelling well in the bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown only to blunder Sean Bowen away at the first of the railway fences (six out) but it was too far from home to be certain as to where he would have finished.
Peter Bowen's charge has progressed quickly over fences and the trainer seems to have his horses in good shape.
Although a fine winner from Holywell (with bet365 winner The Young Master third) at Cheltenham, Un Temps Pour Tout does not look particularly well handicapped on other pieces of form though he won a four-runner conditions hurdle at Aintree three weeks ago (Vyta Du Roc third) in typically honest fashion.
In contrast, Saphir Du Rheu could be thrown-in off a 10lb lower mark than when fifth (started 9-2 favourite) behind Smad Place last year.
However, the former World Hurdle runner-up became disappointing last season and again looked a bit laboured when third on his Ascot reappearance.
Connections are confident that Saphir Du Rheu will come on for the run but I'm not quite sure what to make of him now.
Stable-companion Vicente is probably weighted to confirm Scottish National placings with fifth-placed Vyta Du Roc but the latter will have benefitted from that recent outing over hurdles and, off just 10s 3lb, is well forward in the betting.
Vicente gets an 11lb pull for a wide margin defeat by Blaklion at Cheltenham last December but could easily be over-priced if travelling as sweetly as he did at Ayr.
Earlier, HOLLY BUSH HENRY is fancied to run a big race in the bet365 Intermediate Hurdle (better known as the Gerry Feilden).
Graeme McPherson's five-year-old makes a quick return to hurdling after finishing third of four behind Double W's and Fou Et Sage in a novice handicap chase at Wetherby last month though that form was boosted when Apterix (last of the four) won next time.
Holly Bush Henry would have found the good ground conditions that day lively enough and completed a three-timer over hurdles last season, winning at Doncaster and Musselburgh on soft ground on the last two occasions. He was then highly tried in the Supreme Novices' at the Cheltenham Festival and ran like a non-stayer over two-and-a-half miles on his final start.
With that recent run under his belt and his small stable seemingly in good form with two recent winners, he could surprise some rivals from bigger yards.
And it is worth bearing in mind that a good run from Holly Bush Henry would certainly boost the chances of Fou Et Sage in the closing bet365 Handicap Chase.
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