Not even Boris Johnson or Donald Trump could get away with calling it the Hennessy Gold Cup any more.
It’s the Ladbrokes Trophy, centrepiece of the Ladbrokes Winter Carnival, and anyone who was at Newbury last weekend will be able to testify what a grand job both course and new sponsor have made of the rebranding.
Well, almost everyone. One of the winners of the two-day meeting’s ‘Peaky Blinders’ best-dressed competition gleefully told an interviewer of her traditional fondness for the occasion and added: “It will always be the Hennessy to me.”
Oops, never mind. It was a rare blip over two days that very much ran to script and confirmed that the Newbury carnival is now the new premier Jumps meeting in the long build-up to the spectacular spring festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree..
Two beautifully balanced cards, offering quality and diversity, mixing up-and-coming equine talent with established performers, and all played out at a track that has improved beyond recognition in recent years, both in terms of customer experience and aesthetics. There are now few courses in the country that do racing, Jumps and Flat, better than Newbury and I would implore anyone who hasn’t tried the place yet to get there soon.
The meeting threw up numerous horses to follow. The only element missing from last weekend’s fare was a vintage renewal of its headline race, the aforementioned Ladbrokes Trophy, worth £250,000. Sadly, for the second season running, we didn’t get it. But at least, unlike 2018 when only 12 runners showed up, it was richly competitive and impossible to call until DE RASHER COUNTER set sail for home from the cross fence and repelled all challengers with guts and gameness up the home straight.
Predictably, the headline writers could not resist De Rasher bringing home the bacon, just as trainer Emma Lavelle could not resist the widest smile on the track for the second day running after she had also saddled the winner of the big race on the Friday, PAISLEY PARK in the Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle.
Some crabbed the performance of the champion stayer in that he only just scrambled home from a past-his-best THISTLECRACK. But I thought connections could be well pleased considering he looked to be carrying plenty of condition beforehand and should improve for the outing. Lavelle herself confessed the 7yo had been hard to get fit, and conceding 6lb to a runner-up who appeared to have regained some of his old verve was still no mean feat.
About half an hour before Paisley Park’s reappearance, we were treated to the best novices’ chase seen so far this term. Registered as the Grade Two Berkshire Chase, the race’s roll of honour, which includes Denman, Bobs Worth and Coneygree, reads like a who’s who of staying chasing. Cue Card was even beaten in it. The quality of the six-runner field this time round merely added to the incredulity that a previous, horrific regime at Newbury once considered doing away with the race.
The 2019 version didn’t disappoint with Nicky Henderson’s favourite, CHAMP, named after AP MCoy, justifying his short price to continue his rise to the top. Not everything panned out as it should for the powerful 7yo but once stoked up to the maximum by Barry Geraghty, his turbo-charged change of pace was clinically effective. He will improve when stepped up to 3m, but so to will the gallant runner-up BLACK OP, while the third, DEYRANN DE CARJAC, ran a blinder upped in class.
Like the latter, FANION D’ESTRUVAL was a French-bred novice chaser who unleashed exciting potential, this time to land a 2m handicap, while another Gallic product, SON OF CAMAS, also looked a young horse to follow when winning a highly informative maiden hurdle, which kicked off the meeting. The first four home went into my notebook, including Paul Nicholls’s ASK FOR GLORY, who has been whispered as a future Gold Cup contender.
One of the features of the meeting concerned heroic efforts by top weights or near-top weights in the handicaps. KALASHNIKOV led the way by coming within a whisker of defying 11-12 in a cracking 2m4f heat on the Friday, while the oft-enigmatic grey CHAMPERS ON ICE relished new front-running tactics in the concluding 3m hurdle.
The theme was continued 24 hours later by ELEGANT ESCAPE’S characteristic, late flourish in the big race and then a stirring duel between the fast-improving MAGIC SAINT and the classy BUN DORAN in a 2m chase run at a ferocious gallop. Both have more successes in their lockers.
It paid also to be close to the pace on the Saturday, as exemplified by THE CASHEL MAN and BENNY’S KING. But arguably the best two performances of all in the handicaps were supplied by horses who were clearly chucked in at the weights.
One, Paul Nicholls’s SAMETEGAL, is an old-timer who proved he’s far from a back-number in the 2m6f chase, while the other, Henderson’s EPATANTE, is a new kid on the block whose victory in the Listed Gerry Feilden Hurdle suggested she could well emerge as a Champion Hurdle challenger come next March. She settled much better than during her novice campaign last year and produced a striking turn of foot, despite missing the second last.
Another Henderson mare, FLORESSA, also has the Cheltenham Festival on her agenda after taking the Listed Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle with the minimum of fuss, and it would be no surprise to see Nicholls’s strapping chaser DANNY WHIZZBANG line up in what was the Festival four-miler after he lowered the colours of disappointing favourite RESERVE TANK on his chasing debut.
All this and I’ve not even mentioned SEVERANO, winner of the 2m4f novices’ hurdle and deservedly pencilled in for a step-up in class in the Grade One Challow Hurdle next time.
Contesting the Challow means a return to Newbury over Christmas, on Saturday, December 28. Don’t mind if I do.