It’s not often all the stars are aligned and you get all your ducks in a row at a race meeting. But that was definitely the case last weekend at Newbury, who dished up the best, and most enjoyable, fare of the Jumps season so far.
Contrary to what you might have read elsewhere, it was not the first year the old ‘Hennessy meeting’ had been abbreviated from three days to two. That switch took place in 2016. But it was the first year of Ladbrokes taking over sponsorship, rebranding it the Winter Carnival and injecting a significant boost to prize money. And there is little doubt that it was a roaring success.
Over the two days, the quality of racing was consistently high, the fields were interesting and competitive, the ground was perfect (not too quick and not too soft), the crowds turned up, the atmosphere and ambience on course was vibrant but pleasant, the track’s ever-improving facilities were in good working order and even the weather played ball. OK, it was cold, raw cold. But mercifully, for this time of year, it was frost-free and, for the large part, rain free.
That all set the stage perfectly for the showpiece race itself, for 40 years the Hennessy Gold Cup, now the £250,000 Ladbrokes Trophy, comfortably the most important handicap chase outside Aintree. And while the strength in depth of the field did not quite match the size of the field, it yielded top-class performances from the first two home, TOTAL RECALL and WHISPER.
As ever, the race was run at a brutal, relentless gallop, one that proved too much for fancies such as former Cheltenham Gold Cup hero CONEYGREE, the talented but inexperienced AMERICAN and the race-fit Paul Nicholls hope PRESENT MAN. So the heights that the front two scaled in travelling with aplomb throughout but still pulling clear to engage in a ding-dong duel to the line cannot be under-estimated.
When Whisper asserted two out and cleared the last with a massive leap, I could not help chuckling to myself. Not just because I’d had a chunky bet on him but also because the spectacular fall from grace in recent years of a renowned tipster was surely about to be capped after he’d claimed Nicky Henderson’s charge “doesn’t jump well enough” to win the race. In fact, the 9yo jumped beautifully throughout under a polished ride from Davy Russell, and whether you’d backed him or not, tipped him or not, you had to feel for the agonising way in which he was reeled in by Willie Mullins’s favourite, mere metres from the line. Henderson blamed himself for picking up a 4lb penalty for Whisper’s victory in a seasonal pipe-opener at Kempton, but without that outing, it’s doubtful whether he’d have been sharp enough to run the mighty race he did on Saturday.
Whisper has been a tremendous trooper for Henderson and owner Dai Walters over the years. A Cheltenham Festival winner in 2014, he landed a Grade One hurdle at Aintree both the following month and 12 months later, and after a distinctly sticky start to life over fences, he has developed into a genuine Gold Cup contender. His display at Newbury tempted the handicapper to put him up 12lbs, extending his mark to 169. To put that into perspective, it’s only 5lb lower than the hefty 174 Denman carried to victory so memorably in the Hennessy of 2009, and a massive 18lbs higher than that lumped off top weight of 11-12 in the same race by Henderson’s own Trabolgan in 2005.
Talking of weight and handicap marks, of course the key factor in Whisper’s narrow defeat at Newbury was the full stone he gave away to the winner. But that should not detract from the remarkable achievement of Mullins to extract so much improvement from Total Recall, who had appeared to be a very ordinary chaser indeed when with former trainer Sandra Hughes.
The master of Closutton quickly recognised the 8yo needed a trip and quickly recognised too he had a mark that could be ruthlessly exploited. Most of us believed an 18lb hike for landing the Munster National at Limerick in October would be sufficient to apply the brakes in a big race such as this. But Mullins knows better than most of us, and the victory not only rubberstamped yet again his genius but also poured scorn on the decision earlier this week by the Horserace Writers and Photographers’ Association (HWPA) not to make him Jumps trainer of the year. I doubt most HWPA members will witness a better feat in our lifetimes than that of Mullins overcoming the seemingly unassailable lead of Gordon Elliott in the Irish trainers’ championship last season at the end of a year in which he’d lost all his Gigginstown-owned horses, not to mention other stars who had succumbed to injury or worse.
Amazingly, Mullins’s exploits with Total Recall represented the first ‘Hennessy’ win for Ireland for 37 years, and earned him sweet, personal redemption for the controversial disqualification of Be My Royal in 2002. Even more amazingly, it was only his third handicap chase winner in the UK since 2003, from no fewer than 114 starters. He even went 11 years, and 96 races, without a single one. But don’t be surprised if he now guns for the biggest of them all, the Randox Health Grand National, with Total Recall next April.
By then, of course, Mullins’s number one jockey, Ruby Walsh, should be back in the saddle after his latest injury. Walsh is probably the greatest Jumps jockey most of us have ever seen, so nothing untoward about that. But it shouldn’t prevent us doffing our caps at the role his substitute, Paul Townend, played in Total Recall’s success at Newbury. Not many pilots get the better of Davy Russell in a finish, but Townend displayed admirable forcefulness to get his mount up at the end of a picture-book ride. The 27-year-old might be Walsh’s understudy but, in my book, he shares a place in the top five of Jumps jockeys in the UK and Ireland at present. Blessed with cool-headed judgement and versatility, he can ride any kind of horse and any kind of race, and very rarely makes an error.
Away from the Ladbrokes Trophy, the main talking-point from the Winter Carnival centred on the disappointing return to the track of THISTLECRACK in the Grade Two Long Distance Hurdle, the feature race of the opening day. Trainer Colin Tizzard was at pains afterwards to stress how much he would come on for the run and would still be aimed at retaining his King George crown at Kempton on Boxing Day. But beforehand, he had stressed how fit and well enough the 9yo was to do himself justice on his comeback from injury.
In actual fact, Thistlecrack looked a shade burly in the paddock, yet he tanked through the race like the class act he used to be. Considering this is just about the best staying hurdler racing has ever seen, and he was receiving 6lbs from his main rival, the manner in which he folded from the second last was a serious letdown. Yes, jockey Tom Scudamore did not ask him any kind of question, and understandably so after his long absence, but only his most devoted followers will be aiming the Christmas readies at him after this.
Thankfully, Thistlecrack’s flop did not spoil the meeting. Far from it. And for that, Newbury, fast becoming the favourite, fairest track for many punters and racegoers, on the Flat and over Jumps alike, deserves huge credit for that. I have just a couple of gripes. If a meeting is to be branded an all-encompassing carnival, surely each day should be afforded the same five-star treatment, as at all the best festivals. It was disconcerting to see some food and drink outlets closed on the Friday, suggesting the day was regarded as second-class fare. Also, can I ask that the track’s hierarchy review their central heating policy? Several parts of the stands, most noticeably the 1905 Bar in the Hampshire Stand, were obscenely cold over the two days, and many radiators were sprouting icicles instead of giving off warmth. It was a good job the hot racing made up for it.
HORSES TO FOLLOW FROM NEWBURY’S LADBROKES WINTER CARNIVAL -- Lostintranslation, Admiral Barratry, Simply The Betts, Bigmartre, Santini, Willoughby Court, O O Seven, Charli Parcs, Whisper, Total Recall, Overtown Express.