In the first National Hunt ante-post preview of the season, Timeform's Matt Gardner takes a look at Wetherby's Grade 2 Charlie Hall Chase...
"Very little has been straightforward in the career of Long Run since his second season in the UK, but in the Charlie Hall he is presented with a perfect opportunity in which to get his 2013/14 campaign off to the perfect of starts..."
The 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup will live long in the memory, the race bringing together the top-notch, up-and-coming Long Run and two outstanding veterans in Kauto Star and Denman. Neither of the two old warriors were at their imperious best that day but both ran hugely creditable races to be trumped only be one that was in the process of announcing himself as an exceptional performer.
Many expected Long Run to go on and become the dominant force in the staying division but a superb riposte by Kauto Star saw him steal the headlines from Nicky Henderson's charge with tremendous displays of courage, quality and technique in the Betfair Chase and the King George. This was supposed to be Long Run's season of consolidation but things clearly didn't go to plan, a fact highlighted by a below-par effort, without any obvious reason, in that years' Gold Cup when beaten by both Synchronised and The Giant Bolster.
As swift as Long Run's rise to the top had been his fall from grace was arguably quicker still and, with the racing public beginning to question just how good he really was, he headed to the 2012 Betfair Chase with a point to prove. A respectable return to action, in a race that didn't see him to best effect, saw him finish second to Silviniaco Conti, an effort which simply wasn't enough to silence the doubters. It was, however, a solid base from which he could build and he would go on to recapture the King George title.
The Boxing Day crown was won through guts and stamina just as much as ability, Long Run's Timeform performance rating being someway below his lifetime best. He would improve upon that figure in defeat in last season's Cheltenham Gold Cup and Punchestown equivalent, and it is incredibly difficult to knock his consistency, but the impression created by Long Run throughout last season was that, for whatever reason, he simply was not as good as the horse that fought off Denman and Kauto Star at Cheltenham.
Where does all of that leave us with Long Run in the context of the upcoming season then? To that I can only say I'm not sure, and the wise move is to let the eight-year-old tell us himself on the track, but what I am certain of is that Long Run should be shorter than 2.26/5 for the Charlie Hall. The fact that he is still only eight caught me unawares as it feels like he has been around for an age, but he was only six when winning the Gold Cup.
With First Lieutenant and The Giant Bolster reportedly set to miss Saturday's race, Long Run has the Wetherby feature at his mercy and, though he largely disappointed last season and is making his return here, he must be able to see off the likes of Big Fella Thanks, Billie Magern and Master of The Hall. Surely?
There are of course bigger dangers in the race, and the market has the Paul Nicholls-trained Unioniste as the greatest of them. Neither I, nor the Timeform weight-adjusted ratings, can justify that as Unioniste has plenty to find with the entire field, let alone Long Run. The five-year-old, successful in the December Gold Cup last year, scraped home in a novices' event at Newbury and was then put in his place in the RSA, producing a laboured effort and never giving the impression that he was the likely winner. He's too short, and cannot be justifiably backed at the current 5.14/1.
Cape Tribulation enjoyed something of a renaissance over fences last term having done the Cheltenham-Aintree double over hurdles in 2012 and is worthy of respect, though he carries a penalty for his win in the Argento Chase and isn't good enough to beat Long Run of level-weights, so the most interesting pair in opposition are arguably two of last seasons' novices, namely Benefficient and Harry Topper.
Benefficient, winner of the Irish Arkle last season, wasn't the easiest to weigh up going into Cheltenham but his success in the Jewson confirmed him as a smart, progressive chaser. Forget his flop at Punchestown, as he clearly wasn't right, and connections have opted to give him a pipe-opener on the Flat recently to tee him up for a return to fences. This demands more, but he could yet continue his upward curve.
Similar comments apply to Harry Topper, who retains the Timeform 'p' on his rating. Until March the six-year-old had looked certain to take high rank among the seasons' staying novices, success in a Newbury Grade 2, where he beat Benefficient, marking him down as one to follow, and for all that he failed to complete in two subsequent starts (unlucky to be brought down at Punchestown) he remains one to be positive about. He has a mountain to climb on his seasonal return, so the 8.27/1 available at present is pretty skinny, but he'll come good at some stage so don't write him off.
Very little has been straightforward in the career of Long Run since his second season in the UK, but in the Charlie Hall he is presented with a perfect opportunity in which to get his 2013/14 campaign off to the perfect of starts. I appreciate that 2.26/5 is pretty tight for the majority of punters but he should be much shorter and will win, though it will be fascinating to see how both Benefficient and Harry Topper fare as they step out of novice company and into the real world.
Back Long Run @ 2.26/5 in the Charlie Hall Chase