Timeform's Matt Gardner takes an early look at the Betfair Chase, the feature contest on Saturday's card at Haydock...
"What must be remembered is that, at just seven years of age, Long Run is a young horse and he has plenty of time with which to regain his best..."
Imperial Commander is out, he will not run. The 11-year-old has reportedly suffered a further injury in his preparation for the Betfair Chase and his absence has no doubt robbed the race of an element of intrigue, with many keen to gauge just how much ability the former Gold Cup winner retains. It is somewhat up in the air at present as to who will run, with a number of potential participants having ulterior targets on the backburner, but the best way to deal with affairs is to assume that the eight engaged will all take part.
Imperial Commander's absence leaves the Nicky Henderson-trained Long Run some 13 lb clear on Timeform weight-adjusted ratings for Haydock's feature, and his story since hopping across the Channel is certainly worth regaling. Long Run could have hardly been more impressive on his first two starts over fences, landing the Grade 1 Feltham Novices' Chase at Kempton before taking the Grade 2 Kingmaker at Wincanton, although he did give evidence on each occasion of his tendency to make the odd mistake, a trait which has blighted his career ever since.
Long Run made a quartet of serious errors on his way to finishing third in the 2010 RSA and again was not fluent on his reappearance the following season when third in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, deserving of plenty of credit for running a huge race from a high BHA mark but likely to have gone close had he cut out the mistakes. He rapidly made amends for that reverse with a brace of exceptional performances in the King George and the Gold Cup, powering clear to beat Denman by seven lengths on the latter occasion and leaving the impression that his reign at the top of the chasing tree would continue for some time.
However, connections did not bank on an enchanting old champion taking matters into his own hands and quelling the young upstart with a series of magnificent leaps around both Haydock and Kempton Park. Yes, Kauto Star was not ready to be pensioned off just yet and his excellence almost emphasised Long Run's defeats with many quick to write off Henderson's charge, suggesting that he was nothing more than a flash in the pan, a Los del Rio (Macarena) or a Baha Men (Who Let The Dogs Out?) if you will.
Long Run did not help his cause by running well below-form in last season's Gold Cup, managing only third in the end, but what must be remembered is that, at just seven years of age, Long Run is a young horse and he has plenty of time with which to regain his best. I will admit to not being Sam Waley-Cohen's biggest fan, although at the same time being genuinely glad that he got the tactics wrong in last year's King George, but he is a competent enough jockey who can guide Long Run to victory providing that his partner returns at close to his peak and keeps his fencing mistakes to a minimum.
Having nailed our colours to Long Run now would usually be the time to write off and/or discredit his rivals but, in this field, that is fairly difficult to do with all bar Wayward Prince, who seems unlikely to back up his Charlie Hall effort when judged on last season's indifferent displays. Many will point to Cannington Brook and say that he has some 33 lb to find with Long Run (well, they may not say precisely that but you get the gist), but were the ground to come up bottomless he would have a realistic chance of making the frame given his form in the mud.
Another that would appreciate ground on the testing side is Tidal Bay, who has been called any number of names in his time but has done little wrong on his last two starts, landing the bet365 Gold Cup with consummate ease in April and the John Smith's Hurdle on his seasonal return earlier this month. There will be no name calling here as, for all that he is not the most trustworthy, I have strongly defended this horse against my colleagues' incessant attacks and will continue to do so. How wise a decision that proves is yet to be borne out.
The Neil Mulholland-trained Midnight Chase is likely to run his race, although he may not be quite good enough to triumph, whilst 2012 Gold Cup runner-up The Giant Bolster may yet be able to improve a little further on last season's offerings given that he has time on his side. Weird Al, a top-class, if fragile, chaser, has an excellent record when fresh and is impossible to rule out after a summer break, but his patchy record does make it difficult to be confident about him.
The one that could realistically challenge Long Run, were that rival at his best, is Silviniaco Conti, who boasts some strong novice form from last season having split Grands Crus and Bobs Worth in the Feltham. He went on to gain a second Grade 2 win over fences with success in the Mildmay Chase at Aintree, beating Champion Court by 13 lengths and improving in the process, and victory was never really in question on his return in the Charlie Hall, where he backed up the aforementioned improvement with a superb round of jumping. Further progress is required if he is to beat Long Run and make his mark in this season's top contests, but there is scope for him to pull out more given that he remains fairly unexposed and he is not to be taken lightly.
Tidal Bay, Weird Al and The Giant Bolster can all be given credible chances but the suspicion is that this will be fought out between Long Run and Silviniaco Conti and, with their being little to separate them in the market, the astute move would be to favour the one who has the form in the book rather than the one who may improve to challenge. It would come as no surprise were Silviniaco Conti to emerge victorious, as his potential is plain to see, but also evident is Long Run's ability, and the hope is that he can return to his best and render last season a distant memory.
Back Long Run @ 2.56/4 to win the Betfair Chase