Good morning from the Major who writes from the lounge, baffled and tired. The Worcestershire morning is calm and bland, cool and grey, it is dark now and peaceful, save for the odd car that trundles past outside.
Last weekend, my long-suffering comrade in arms, Martin Hill, was close to reclaiming many lost investments when the multiple I name in his honour came within a whisker of landing. The first two legs of his trixie had landed and in the final race, Saved by John led, was headed at the last by Alasi and fought back famously to be denied by a quarter length. Now that was exhilaratingly painful, an emotion us racing fans are familiar with.
This week, a few people have asked me for a Hennessy tip. I have been giving them Our Father who up until last night was my fancy. I have changed my mind (see below, I have a 50/1 Hennessy tip now!) but I stand that Our Father can be a contender if on one of his going days.
One of the reasons I liked Our Father is that I am sure he would be wound up for the race. First of all it is the Hennessy so of course he will be but secondly, he was part owned by the legendary Johnson team and I could not help but feel that Pipe would love to win the race as tribute to the late David Johnson, a magnificent contributor to the sport and the Pipe yard.
That was speculation but it made me consider the life of David Johnson. Reading about him , having never met him, he strikes me as a very nice sort of chap. While manners can be afforded if you are stinking rich, they are not automatic, in fact some substitute money for common courtesy so it must be a compliment to say that money seemed not to pollute the man’s capacity for enjoying life and inspiring others around him to do so too.
Yet, I can assure you dear readers that a life of riches is not a necessity for your own personal contentment. It helps but is not close to being the most important thing. Consider the things you can buy and have bought. How many were for show? The Major confesses to be as weak here as well. When spending money, the consideration is as much ‘how does this make me look’ or perhaps more accurately and very closely (as it is also based on the opinion of others ‘how does buying this make me feel’ than most practical considerations. Otherwise brands would not work.
Epicurean wisdom dictates (and I entirely support) that the most important matter is friendship not wealth. You need precious little to be happy. Practice it today – Make a phone call to an old friend, invite them to something. Instead of buying those nieces and nephews presents at Christmas, set up a day out with them. You will find my friends that experience beats trinkets my friends. Release yourself from the social need to demonstrate wealth. Purchase for function.
Sport allows you to feel again. Like sparks from the fire, dimming until the end, our lives are short vignettes in this planets great tome of life. Allow sport, racing to illuminate for you.
Daub thy war paint young warrior and join me at the line, we shall skirmish in open formation into the enemies forward positions, smashing through with our heavy horse and setting upon them in close quarter….. Cry Shabash and raise that lance point, the blood staining but the silver glittering beneath.
Let us start with the Hennessy, a race that often throws up a Gold Cup winner, most notably in recent years with the likes of Bobs Worth and Denman.
The recent of Hennessy winners show two distinct winners profiles. Either a decent chaser (135-150 Official Rating) can win it off a featherweight, or a top class chaser (160+) can bear the burden of top weight and see off the pretenders. In the last fifteen years, the two Gold Cup winners mentioned are the only two horses that have won off a mark above 160.
The relationship between weight and official rating that creates the race make-up is complicated by the quality of the top rated horse that goes in. When Denman won off a mark of 174, it was a remarkable achievement. He may have been lucky and hit a year where a particular dearth of non-improvers constituted the field but no horse has won off a mark in the 170s before. He had almost half the field outside of the handicap and only Mon Mome, a previous National winner was within a stone.
Paul Nicholls has an excellent Hennessy record having won three of the last ten renewals (twice with Denman of course). Henderson has two wins in the same period. Nicholls has one shot at the race this year in Rocky Creek who looks a thorough stayer and capable. He, like many, has had no run this season but that is not a problem. With the big races like this, the top stables can be relied upon to have their main charges well prepared.
No horse in the race is more interesting than Invictus. He had the notable scalps of Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti in behind in the Reynoldstown, his last race in February 2012. Given those horses are now rated 180 and 173, if you could rely on a direct form line, his mark of 145 is a gift from god.
I do not think so much of Merry King, although anything Jonjo trains in a major handicap is impossible to dismiss. Prince de Beauchene attempts to buck his trend of terrible luck – Having been laid out for to Grand Nationals only to fall to injury. Lord Windermere will have many fans but since I do not rate the RSA form, I am not one of them. Highland Lodge comes from the Lavelle yard which is firing on all cylinders… of some interest. Loch Ba also is not without hope.
Hmmm, Invictus is highly interesting for me but so is Our Father. I have been a fan of this horse since watching his absolutely slaughter a decent Cheltenham field – He took my eye as a really powerful traveller. He is clearly decent fresh but has two ways of running.
Having dwelt on the subject for some time, I am settling on a rank outsider for the Hennessy. My selection can currently be backed at 33/1 generally (though 25/1 in a place) and at a striking stand out 50/1 with Stan James. I am talking about Opening Batsmen. This is a horse I backed a couple of weeks ago at Ascot and was disappointed to see jump badly and be pulled up. He is a second season chaser for Harry Fry who has a tremendous Newbury record, we also get the significant benefit of Noel Fehily too. The horse also has some excellent form. He is in here off 146 but last season have a good beating to Rolling Aces who has franked the form and won again, now on a mark of 153. There may well be more persuasive and obvious claims but I am quite happy to be on this fella at 50s…. Have a slice.
I have always felt that Reve de Sivola was a World Hurdle winner in the absence of a decent in-form rival – That is probably being very harsh but I fully expect At Fishers Cross to give a sound hiding and even at 4/5 I want to be involved.
The listed hurdle opener is a cracking affair and while Vicky De L’Oasis was an impressive Wexford winner for the in form Mullins team, I am opting for Free Thinking who races in the Waley-Cohen colours. The thing is that my selection was also impressive when winning a lesser affair (at Ludlow) smashing Koolala and eased. Koolala went on to frank that form winning a Uttoxeter bumper on Thursday.
The Fighting Fifth
The ground for the Fighting Fifth is good this year after last year they swam it. This is a race where a hot favourite can get turned over and here the market is hugely centred on two, My Tent or Yours and Melodic Rendevouz.
Melodic Rendevouz was very good when beating my selection Key West at Wincanton in the Elite Hurdle, readily picking up Far West, a Nicholls horse who ran no sort of race when out again last weekend. My Tent or Yours is a Champion Hurdle protagonist who won the Betfair Hurdle and I thought was unlucky in the Supreme where Champagne Fever had first run on him. To be fair, he had every chance in the festival race but was unable to pick up the winner on the hill.
The filly in the race is of some interest having won a listed race on reappearance. The Cockney Sparrow gets weight from all of her rivals and represents last years winning trainer. A small case might be made for Grumeti but the rest are rounding up the field.
So how do we split these key players? The ground might help, The Cockney Sparrow has won on it, My Tent or Yours and Melodic Rendevouz have never raced on it. The former is out of a Sire whose progeny have only 1 win from 36 starts on the ground. While it is thin evidence, it does trouble me a bit. Add in the obvious fitness advantage of Melodic Rendevouz and I prefer the second favourite.
On a strict line of form with Champagne Fever, who Melodic Rendevouz faced back in 2012, then My Tent or Yours has the beating. This means I must think MR has improved or has conditions in favour and I think both of those things to be true. A leveler is jockey bookings as I would far rather have McCoy in the saddle than Schofield. Not that I am against the latter, who has a great record with the horse(5/6), but class counts. Melodic Rendevouz it is at 5/2 (1/4 in places). Cockney Sparrow is an each way steal at 9/1.
There are a host of young improvers queuing up to have a pop at Oscar Rock in the 1.05. I am interested in Five in a Row who beat a decent horse The Last Samuri who has gone on to win again when stepped up in trip. That form is OK but off-putting is the recent Ellison National Hunt form which shows 1 winner from 20 runners. I am instead opting for Ballyaton who also looks useful and comes with the benefit of proven good ground form (2 runs, 2 wins). He also handed a drubbing to Key to the West last season and that reads well with that horse winning twice this term already.
In the opener, I am more confident of the chances of Green Flag at 10/11. I have no doubt that Streams of Whiskey could be a threat but while he was 3l down to my pick, when falling at the last, he was travelling the lesser of the two (although he had made earlier errors). He needs a clean round of jumping and these fences will be a real test.
In the football, Walsall (8/11), QPR (7/10) and Wolves (6/4) are my selections in a tasty treble.
The Martin Hill multiple is simple… Opening Batsmen, Free Thinking and Meledic Rendevouz in an each way trixie.
I hope you enjoy a dinner in the finest of company. Allow yourself a draw on the best brandy they have… we float by the once and must grasp anything which we enjoy. This is not the practice round, this is it.
Courage, roll those dice.