Ruby Walsh thinks Djakadam has a “favourite’s chance” of creating history by becoming the first five-year-old to win the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury.
Despite having only completed over fences three times last season, the Willie Mullins-trained French import has been backed as if defeat is out of the question in the past few weeks.
He was overlooked by Walsh in favour of Felix Yonger on his last outing in the JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham in March, yet was still travelling well when coming down four fences from home.
Because of his limited experience, the handicapper has struggled to know what do to with him and came up with a rating of 142, seen as lenient by some.
“We’re hoping that Djakadam is well handicapped but he hasn’t done anything to deserve a higher mark than 142,” Walsh told his Paddy Power blog.
“You’re guessing that if he hadn’t fallen in the JLT last March he may have gone very close. From where I was sitting (just in behind on Felix Yonger) he seemed to be travelling well enough when he tipped up four out.
“It’s a catch-22 situation. If he had the experience he wouldn’t have the mark he’s on now. I’m hopeful he has the class to overcome that.
“He has always shaped like a three-miler and is in good form at home. It’s a big ask for Djakadam – but I think he has a favourite’s chance. Others can decide the price.”
Dangers abound, including Fingal Bay, who remains the only horse to have beaten Simonsig under Rules.
Philip Hobbs’ charge looked like being a star novice chaser but dramatically ran out at Exeter in December 2012.
When he returned last season it was over hurdles, culminating in Pertemps Final success at the Cheltenham Festival.
“He’s in really good form. Whatever the ground is like won’t matter to him, but if it is softer it might just slow some of the others down,” said Hobbs.
“He’s in very good shape and we’re looking forward to the race. I had been thinking about getting a run into him but the ground meant that I couldn’t and then it got too close.
“As it turns out, I think it’s a bonus we haven’t run him as he’s won first time out for the past four seasons, so not having had a run won’t be an issue.”
For many years, people have trumpeted the chances of second-season chasers in the Hennessy, and the best qualifier on that system is Alan King’s Smad Place, just touched off in the RSA Chase in March.
He has had the race as his aim since then and recently had a racecourse gallop at Newbury.
King, who had a treble at the Berkshire track on Thursday, said: “We’ve been very happy with him at home, but I just felt a day out last week would benefit him to give him a change of scenery and get the adrenaline back up.
“He hasn’t been on a racecourse since March, so it was important to give him an away day. “His form suggests he has a big chance – the bookmakers say so – so I’d hope he has a big chance.
“This has been his target since the end of last season and if he runs very well or improves a bit then you hope he might be a Gold Cup horse, but he has a fair way to go yet. We think he has improved physically since last year, though.”
Many Clouds also ran in the RSA Chase, but was brought down, and won impressively on his comeback at Carlisle.
Trainer Oliver Sherwood told At The Races: “He’s in great order, I haven’t missed a day with him since Carlisle.
“He did his final bit of work on Tuesday, he popped over some fences on Thursday and it’s all systems go.
“He’s the right horse to go there with. The ground will be right, whether he’s good enough is the only question.
“He’s a man this year, while last year he was a teenager. I’d like to think he’s still improving, he’s off 151 which is asking a lot but he’s big enough to carry 11st 6lb.”
Paul Nicholls saddles last year’s runner-up Rocky Creek, a good second to Road To Riches on his return at Down Royal, and Unioniste.
The Ditcheat handler said of Rocky Creek: “I was happy with Down Royal. I kept saying to Clifford (Baker, head lad) a month before that he was fat enough.
“He was taking an awful lot of getting fit and he just got a bit tired from the back of the second-last. The horse that won had had two runs so I think race fitness counted.
“If this lad has improved as much from Down Royal as Silviniaco Conti did after Wetherby then we have a great chance.
“Last year in the race was his first run out of novice company and he looked the winner everywhere bar the last and just got run out of it on the run-in. He hadn’t had a run so I just think that could make the difference.”
Rocky Creek’s owner Andy Stewart said: “Last year we went straight to Newbury not having a run beforehand, which is why we took him to Down Royal for a run round there. Obviously we were delighted to get a bit of prize-money when he came second.”
John Hales, fresh from winning a big race at Ascot last weekend with Al Ferof, owns Unioniste and said: “He deserves his chance in the Hennessy.
“Whether he’ll be good enough in that particular race I don’t know. I think he might need further, but we’ll see.
“We treated them (ulcers) when they came to our farm in the summer and if he comes back as well as Al Ferof did we’ll be delighted.”
Ballynagour steps up markedly in trip, having previously finished second behind Sizing Europe run over two miles at Punchestown in April.
His jockey Tom Scudamore said: “He’s certainly got the class – he’s a Grade One performer. It’s his first time over the trip but I’m looking forward to it.
“He was very impressive at Cheltenham and the fact he was able to hold his form after that in two really good Grade Ones speaks volumes.
“He wasn’t beaten far by Boston Bob at Aintree and then we dropped him down to two miles when he chased home Sizing Europe.
“He’s been a fantastic servant to the yard. He had a great end to last year and I’m just looking forward to taking them all on in what is the most competitive handicap of the year.”
Venetia Williams is glad the rain arrived earlier in the week for last season’s sixth Houblon Des Obeaux, but fears he faces a hard task off joint-top weight.
“We missed a little bit of time with him a few weeks ago, so we haven’t had a chance to get a prep run into him, but I’m happy he’s ready to go,” said Williams.
“The weather is in his favour a bit more than last year, but top weight is always a big ask in a race like that.”