Smad Place crowns superb run for King
Whatever is in store for the winter, it has certainly been an autumn of supreme content for trainer Alan King. Not only has the yard bagged the Cesarewitch and the Paddy Power Gold Cup in 2015's twilight season, but yesterday it added the Hennessy to the autumn handicap haul, and in the most spectacular style.
With echoes of One Man who won the Hennessy way back in 1994, the whiting-grey Smad Place put in an exhibition jumping round from the front to see off his 14 rivals by a gawping 12 lengths. Many experts considered the race indecipherable beforehand, so competitive did it appear on paper, but the Alan King eight year-old gave lie to that with an aggressive front-running performance that had many of his rivals in trouble from an early stage.
Indeed, to the naked eye, it appeared as if the initiative shown by jockey Wayne Hutchinson to grab the race by the scruff of the neck in the very tiring ground might have been a shade optimistic as Smad Place and Fingal Bay began a real set-to up front from the drop of the flag. Trainer Alan King was of the same view watching from the stands, admitting diplomatically afterwards "I wasn't sure they were the tactics we'd discussed" before adding, less diplomatically, "and if he doesn't get home I'm gonna kill him".
Whilst the jockey's initiative undoubtedly contributed to yesterday's success, the trainer had no small part to play in the preparation. The hallmark of the successful is the ability to learn from mistakes, and King was kicking himself after last year's Hennessy for entering Smad Place without a prep run. Tiring into fifth last season, King clocked in the lesson and gave his horse a race at Kempton this season to blow out the cobwebs. Racing off exactly the same mark of 155 yesterday, the ploy was enough to turn a 20 lengths defeat into a 12 length victory.
Jockey Wayne Hutchinson, who has been with the King team since the day dot, was effervescent in victory "I don't think the boss thought I was going to go that quick and I did take a bit of a chance, but I just felt when he won at Kempton that he'd really enjoyed himself in front. When I rode him last season in the Cotswold Chase and in the Bowl, he was a bit keen and then he hit a flat spot, and I wanted to try things differently. I'm just so pleased it worked. It's a big pot to win, but he's deserved it, and whatever else happens from here it's onwards and upwards hopefully."
The direction of that trajectory is likely next to be the King George for which Smad Place is now a general 10/1, whilst his Gold Cup odds have shrunk to 14/1.
Perhaps the main hallmark of yesterday's win was the exuberance of the winner's fencing, which put pressure on his rivals right from the start. Favourite Saphir du Rheu had jumped and travelled beautifully until midway down the back straight on the second circuit when the French-bred made a Horlicks of the sixth last, leaving him a mountain to climb under top-weight.
The only Grade 1 of the day, up at Newcastle, saw Henry de Bromhead score on his first ever visit for the 46th running of the Fighting Fifth. His Identity Thief only saw a racecourse for the first time in a bumper at Fairyhouse on this weekend last year and, by de Bromhead's admission, "everything might have happened quite quickly for him last year". From bumper success to Grade 1 hurdle win in open company is an ascent that might give many the bends, but the grit and resolution shown by Identity Thief up at Gosforth Park would surely have been appreciated even by the terraces across at St James' Park.
Having fluffed the last, it appeared that Top Notch was going to be gifted the race on the short run-in. However, Bryan Cooper managed to galvinise the Thief to snatch victory on the post. The supplemented Gigginstown winner caused de Bromhead to remark afterwards "We've always liked him and it's great to come over here and win a Grade One with him."
Asked inevitably about a Champion Hurdle bid, the trainer remained sensibly anchored in the present "We've a long way to go before that (Champion Hurdle) and we'll enjoy today." On any previous visible evidence you would not have said Identity Thief was a cast iron Grade 1 winner waiting to happen, but de Bromhead's astute sense of context in these things was enough to suggest he wasn't going to Newcastle with just a coal bucket.
No doubt Identity Thief's chance was enhanced by the underperformance of the two market leaders - a feature also of the Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle back at Newbury. In a race billed as a match between World Hurdle hero Cole Harden and his Aintree conqueror Whisper, neither even reached the frame in a field of just five, as last year's exciting novice Thistlecrack maintained his progress to outstay his rivals. Trainer Colin Tizzard, enjoying a purple patch at present said afterwards: "He's grown into a big, strong horse now. To be honest, I told everyone he would need the run, but that he might be classy enough to win. He jumped and never missed a beat and travelled strongly, and I'm sure he'll improve massively for that." Yet another trainer enjoying an autumn of content.
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