Blast From The Past: Hennessy Gold Cup

Smad Place won the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury by a dozen lengths 12 months ago and he will become the latest horse to attempt to win the race for a second time on Saturday.

Blast From The Past: Hennessy Gold Cup

Smad Place won the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury by a dozen lengths 12 months ago and he will become the latest horse to attempt to win the race for a second time on Saturday.

Smad Place
Smad Place Picture:Pat Healy Photography

Victory, off an 11 lb higher mark than last year, would put Smad Place Horseform in a group of dual Hennessy winners which contains just the legendary trio of Mandarin (1957 and 1961), Arkle (1964 and 1965) and Denman (2007 and 2009). Top-weight of 11-12 has been carried to success in the Hennessy just three times since Burrough Hill Lad lugged 12-0 to victory in 1984, first by the previous season’s RSA winner Trabolgan in 2005 and then twice by the aforementioned Denman, himself the previous season’s RSA winner on the first occasion (during a campaign in which he continued his unbeaten streak over fences and beat his stablemate Kauto Star by seven lengths in the Gold Cup).

Denman’s second Hennessy win probably drew a more emotional reaction than any renewal in recent memory. He’d been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat early in the autumn of 2008 and had been unable to attempt a second win in the Hennessy that year, which delayed his return until the February of the 2008/09 season.

Denman was turned over at odds-on in a Grade 2 at Kempton that day, before filling the same spot behind Kauto Star Horseform in the Gold Cup and falling two out with the race in the balance in the Bowl at Aintree. Despite those reverses and running off an official mark of 174 (13 lb higher than in the 2007 race), Denman was still sent off a well-backed 11/4 favourite to beat 18 rivals in the 2009 Hennessy, among them his stable-companion What A Friend Horseform, who had won three of his four starts as a novice chaser the previous season, and Barbers Shop Horseform, who had finished behind Denman when seventh in the previous March’s Gold Cup when last seen but was to receive 18 lb from the market leader. Also in the race was the 2006 Hennessy winner State of Play Horseform and the same connections’ Cappa Bleu Horseform, successful in the Foxhunter at Cheltenham the previous season.

Denman suffered no long-term damage from his Aintree fall and delighted his trainer Paul Nicholls in a racecourse gallop at Exeter when working towards the 2009 Hennessy. As a result of his 2008/09 campaign, Denman's BHA mark had actually come down from 182 (3 lb higher than Kauto Star at the time), though he still had to give a minimum of 12 lb to the opposition (six of whom were out of the handicap). Whilst lacking the dominance of his 2007 victory, when he had the race won from a long way out in much more testing conditions, Denman's second Hennessy success owed plenty to his trademark assured jumping and resolute galloping, eventually hitting the line with three and a half lengths to spare over What A Friend, with the 2009 Irish National winner Niche Market (who would later join the Nicholls stable) in third and Barbers Shop in fourth.

Denman’s resolution served him well at the finish but, back at the start, he had needed plenty of rousting by Ruby Walsh to get away on terms on the outside of the field and take up a prominent pitch jumping the first. Denman was, by all accounts, prone to laziness at home and, though he had never failed to jump off in a race, no chances were taken on racedays when he was accompanied at the start by the trainer’s assistant, Dan Skelton. Once under way, Denman soon settled on the heels of the leaders Joe Lively and Niche Market, briefly taking the lead over the water passing the stands for the first time. Going down the back straight on the second circuit, Denman asserted and went on again, for good this time.

A bold jump at the cross fence by Denman put daylight between himself and Barbers Shop, who had emerged as his closest pursuer, and, while the latter closed again seemingly going well on Denman’s inner four out (the first in the straight), another fine leap from Denman saw him off. Niche Market was still in contention at that stage too, but it was What A Friend who was to prove the only real threat. Denman briefly looked to have a fight on his hands going to the last when What A Friend drew upsides under Sam Thomas (who had partnered Denman to victory in 2007), but, with What A Friend hanging fire (he’d end his career with a Timeform ‘squiggle’ attached to his rating), Denman showed much the greater resolution when driven out on the run-in.

With Trabolgan’s success coming off a mark of 151, Denman's two victories were the best performances in the race since the one produced a quarter of a century earlier by Burrough Hill Lad, who was the last Hennessy winner before Denman to have won a Cheltenham Gold Cup as well. Not long before Burrough Hill Lad, in 1982, the Hennessy winner Bregawn went on to win the Gold Cup in the spring, but all the other horses to have won both races achieved the feat early in the Hennessy's history (among them Mandarin and Arkle).

Denman went on to have another go in the Hennessy, off a mark of 182 in 2010 (12 of his 17 rivals were out the weights, including the winner Diamond Harry) and was only a few lb shy of his 2007 performance as he finished third. Denman’s retirement due to injury was announced in December 2011 and he’s reportedly spent plenty of his time since participating in team chasing (where teams of four riders compete over a cross-country course of about two miles) and out in the hunting field, sometimes alongside his former stablemate Big Buck's Horseform.


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