Charlie challenge

It used to be that the Mercedes Benz meeting at Chepstow signalled the start of the National Hunt season in earnest, the first time you saw horses jumping fences on television since the Galway Plate. These days, however, that meeting has been lost a little in the business (say: busy-ness) of the autumn calendar, what with Champions’ Day and the Breeders’ Cup and the extension of the flat season. These days, it is the Charlie Hall Chase, followed two weeks later by the Paddy Power Gold Cup (after a Breeders’ Cup skip), that are the stepping stones into the new National Hunt season.

The thing about the Charlie Hall is that it pits the old established brigade, the horses whose failings and foibles you know as intimately as your own, against the young, exciting, fashionable chasers, all of whom, at this stage of the season, (we love to say) could be anything. Which of Time For Rupert, Diamond Harry or Nacarat are possible Gold Cup contenders this year? Easy peasy, Nacarat is the only one of the three who isn’t. But which are value at current prices to win tomorrow’s contest? Different question.

Unusually for a Grade 2 staying chase, the percentage call in the Charlie Hall is to side with the elders. Only one horse aged younger than eight has won it since Young Hustler won it in 1994, and in that time it has been won by three 10-year-olds and a 12-year-old. It is difficult to know exactly why that is, but it is probably primarily down to two factors.

Firstly, the race comes up early in the season, the youngsters are suddenly pitched into the heat of competition against experienced horses, when they have been used to sauntering around against fellow novices. It would be like pitching a minor footballer in against seniors for the first time. He may well get up to the increased speed of the game quite quickly, but it is still a challenge.

Time For Rupert has only run in three chases, and he has never competed outside of novice company. Diamond Harry has run in just four chases, and his only race outside of novice company was in last year’s Hennessy. Like the minor footballer, either or both may be up to the challenge, but, as above, it is still a challenge.

Secondly, the Charlie Hall is often a starting point for the younger horses, a route into the season. Allow them run, see how they go, then step them up with an eye on some of the bigger prizes later in the season. Not that the youngsters will be going into tomorrow’s race unfit, that doesn’t happen any more, and Diamond Harry in particular goes best fresh, but they may not just have every screw tightened as tight as it can be. There are bigger fish to fry later in the season.

Nacarat may have bigger fish to fry later in the season as well, like another Racing Post Chase, but you know that the Charlie Hall is his early-season target, you know that Tom George has been training him for the race for a while now. Indeed, after he won the Totesport Bowl at Aintree last April, George mentioned the Charlie Hall. How far away did the Charlie Hall seem then? A Punchestown Festival, a Guineas, a Derby, an Arc and a Champions’ Day away, that’s how far. And here we are.

Against Nacarat is the fact that he has to shoulder a 10lb penalty, that he has to give weight away to horses who are officially rated superior to him, but he also has a lot in his favour. As above, you know that he has been trained for the race. Also, as last year’s winner, you know that he goes well at the track and at this time of year, and you know that he will love the good ground. He will probably have to be better tomorrow than he was last year, he has 10lb more to carry and it is probably a better race, but he won with plenty in hand last year, and he proved that he is still a classy performer when he probably put up an even better performance to win that Totesport Bowl in April.

Nacarat is at his best on good ground on a flat track, when he can get into a nice rhythm early on. He doesn’t have to lead, as he proved last year when he took a lead from Ollie Magern, but he is probably at his best when he can set his own pace, when he doesn’t have to be worrying about circumnavigating a rival. As such, the re-routing of Quinz to Ascot, and the defection of Carruthers and Neptune Collonges, both potential challengers for the early lead, strengthen the case for him.

It may be that he is not up to giving the weight away to the youngsters, or indeed to Poquelin, and Weird Al is an intriguing runner, making his debut for Donald McCain, but best odds of 6/1 about Nacarat are generous, and the top two look too short at combined odds of a shade of odds-on.

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