ON November 17, 2011, at the now defunct Hereford racecourse, I witnessed something wonderful in what was a fairly workaday novices’ handicap chase. It was the chasing debut of a young horse who, despite showing promise and winning once at Ascot, hadn’t pulled up any trees over hurdles, but who had always looked like fences might be the making of him. What happened over the next 2m 5f and 16 obstacles was probably the most impressive round of jumping by a chasing debutante that I can remember. This was INVICTUS.
He jumped beautifully. He soared over the fences in a manner that would have had Dessie doffing his equine cap. He was also badly hampered by a faller (Paul Nicholls’ Doeslessthanme) and showed the type of footwork that Muhammad Ali would have been proud of to avoid being brought down. He didn’t beat much but it was his jumping that got the juices flowing.
This immense promise was confirmed in another small race at Plumpton 18 days later, again over 2m 5f, when Invictus again cleared the fences as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Here was a horse bred to jump. So I was gutted when he was only third to Champion Court at Cheltenham in the Dipper Novices’ Chase on New Year’s Day 2012. That day he wasn’t as fluent in his jumping and I suspected something wasn’t right. Alan King later revealed he had torn a shoe off during the race: a valid excuse for the below-par run.
But compensation came in the Grade Two Reynoldstown Novices’ Chase six weeks later at Ascot, traditionally one of the strongest trials for the RSA. Again, Invictus stood out with his jumping. He was better than the others, which included Silviniaco Conti and future Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth. He travelled and jumped, and won by three lengths from the latter. Connections of the vanquished suggested their charges had not showed their best form. Maybe so. But they were outjumped and outgunned.
A tendon injury ruled Invictus, who was now favourite for the RSA Chase, out of the Cheltenham feature and he hasn’t been on the racecourse since. On Saturday he returns in the Hennessy Gold Cup and in recent weeks it seems that the racing public has latched on to this horse’s potential – and favourable handicap mark. His prolonged absence has seen his rating fall to 145, which is 5lb less than when he was a novice.
He is the 7/1 ante-post favourite for the Hennessy and has attracted huge support. Alan King would have liked to have got a run into him and has described his price as absurd. But he has also indicated he is not a hard horse to get fit. King says he’ll be better for the run, so can a horse who has been out for 20 months win the Hennessy first time out? It would be a great training feat.
I think he can. And I also think Invictus could be the horse to get King back among the Cheltenham Festival Grade One winners. Katchit, Voy Por Ustedes and My Way De Solzen provided wonderful moments in a flurry of halcyon days between 2006 and 2008 but the trainer has been waiting for a true champion since then. I thought Bensalem might win a Gold Cup one day but his career was blighted by injury. For the future he has Two Rockers and Carraig Mor but, for now, Invictus could be the one to carry the flag in the Gold Cup next March.
I love the Hennessy. Why? Because it’s always been the Hennessy and nothing else. It’s the longest race sponsorship and the contest hasn’t been diluted by different sponsors. Invictus will have a fiercely competitive field to beat. Our Father could be a major player and might be a classic David Pipe plot. Hadrian’s Approach ticks plenty of boxes and will aim to emulate previous Hennessy winners Trabolgan and Bobs Worth for Nicky Henderson. Rocky Creek has the right profile but might want it softer and any of Willie Mullins’ challengers must be respected.
But I’m hoping Invictus will give his rivals a jumping lesson en route to even greater heights…
What do you think? Who will win the Hennessy?