Trying to select the winner of a race that last week received a record entry of 89 is no small task but the National Hunt Chase on day one of the Cheltenham Festival looks Black Hercules’ best chance yet of success at Prestbury Park.
Willie Mullins’ charge has twice made the journey to the Cotswolds, finishing fourth behind Silver Concorde in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper in 2014 before producing a less than herculean effort last year, trailing in seventh, a whopping 35 lengths behind Martello Tower in the Albert Barlett Novices’ Hurdle.
That dismal showing obviously raises questions about his liking for Cheltenham but an overall record of six wins from nine races under rules provides encouragement. Further, his CV over hurdles includes a cosy victory over Alpha Des Obeaux, a useful sort now considered a serious player in the World Hurdle. That suggests a fair level of ability.
However, the biggest cause for optimism comes from the fact this will be Black Hercules’ first bid for Cheltenham glory over fences. The seven-year-old has always been considered a chaser in the making by connections and the early indications suggest that is very much the case.
Black Hercules recorded an emphatic 12-length victory over stablemate Sambremont (who subsequently franked the form with an easy win at Fairyhouse on New Year’s Day) on his chasing debut at Navan in December.
He then produced a flawless round of jumping on heavy ground at a stiff track in Warwick to beat a consistent sort in Definitly Red snugly last month.
Black Hercules has three Festival options but taking on No More Heroes or More Of That in the RSA Chase looks too steep an ask. The same sentiment applies with the JLT Novices’ Chase. Black Hercules has lots going for him but is not, at least not yet, a true Grade One horse.
However, he does jump well and the Warwick run suggested he possesses an endless supply of stamina. The National Hunt Chase, run over a marathon four-mile trip, looks tailor-made for him.
At first glance a best price of 4/1 doesn’t appear overly generous but looking through the field, it’s hard to see too many obvious dangers.
Rule The World, for instance, rarely runs a bad race over extreme trips but invariably find one or two too good.
Roi Des Francs, a stablemate of Black Hercules, looks the most obvious danger after accounting for the once highly-regarded Pont Alexandre, another Closutton inmate and potential four-miler runner, at Naas last month.
However, that was only Pont Alexandre’s second run in little less than three years and there must be a doubt he retains his old ability.
That brings us back to Black Hercules and he looks well capable of making it third time lucky in a race Mullins won twice as a jockey aboard Hazy Dawn in 1982 and Macks Friendly in 1984 before training Back in Focus to victory in 2013.
Despite more valuable and prestigious races at the Festival, the National Hunt Chase holds a special place in Willie Mullins’ heart.
The champion trainer won it twice as a jockey, riding Hazy Dawn (1982) and Macks Friendly (1984) to victory for his late father, Paddy, and when his son, Patrick, rode Back In Focus to victory in 2013 post-race interviews revealed just how much it meant to the Closutton handler.
Previous attempts to emulate the father-son success had failed to hit the target but when Mullins upped the ante with a 150-rated Back In Focus, it reaped reward. Winning it once was a fantastic achievement but safe to assume further successes, with Patrick aboard, are high on the agenda.
And such belief gains credence when we realise the strength of Mullins’ entry for this renewal. Hercules heads a list which includes Roi Des Francs, Pont Alexandre, Pleasant Company and Outlander.
Leaving aside the Gigginstown entries, Patrick will have the choice of which one to ride, but his connection to Black Hercules, which he jointly bought and sold, makes it long odds-on he’ll side with the seven-year-old.
That should ensure his odds remain relatively short, but they won’t get him over the line.
Festival form is important, and his Champion Bumper fourth behind Silver Concorde reads well, but there aren’t too many excuses for the flop in last year’s Albert Bartlett.
He was good on his chasing debut, beating stablemate and subsequent winner Sambremont, but didn’t have to step up on previous form to beat Definitly Red at Warwick.
Unlikely to be allowed his own way up front at Cheltenham, his relative lack of experience could be shown up. And then there’s stamina, which is not guaranteed. But the biggest concern of all is the ground, which is likely to be too lively for him.
Stable companion Roi Des Francs is a likely danger and, arguably, a better fit for the race. His doughty display over three miles on deep ground at Naas bodes well for this thorough test, and last season’s third-place finish behind another stablemate, Killultagh Vic, in the Martin Pipe Conditional Hurdle, over an inadequate trip, also points to an extreme test of stamina bringing out the best in him.
Gordon Elliott, who has a good record in the race, also holds a strong entry, while Mouse Morris, who also went close previously, could send classy maiden chaser Rule The World.
This race is getting ever-more difficult to win, and the least chink in the armour will be exposed. With last year’s flop still fresh in the mind, Black Hercules looks a poor favourite for what should be a very competitive race.