RICHARD Johnson’s season will almost certainly be defined by three potential horses of a lifetime – Captain Chris, Menorah and Wishfull Thinking – if the record-breaking AP McCoy, once again, remains out of sight in the title race.
Johnson parted company, somewhat ingloriously, from the first two at Exeter earlier this month, although he hopes the latter can defy a handicap-defying 11st 6lb in today’s prestigious Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham.
Though no horse has carried more weight to victory since Our Vic in 2005, the Philip Hobbs-trained eight-year-old – a winner at both the Aintree and Punchestown Festivals – is viewed as, potentially, the biggest threat this season to reigning Gold Cup champion Long Run who reappears at Haydock next weekend.
While Captain Chris, a Cheltenham Festival winner, and the novice chaser Menorah are set to target shorter distances, the expectations of Johnson and Hobbs are not without foundation in the prestigious three mile-plus chasing division.
The aforementioned Long Run was third to Little Josh 12 months ago when carrying just 11st 1lb – and he still went on to complete a famous King George and Gold Cup double.
As he seeks a welcome change of luck, Johnson – jump racing’s most likable rider – pointed to Wishfull Thinking’s course form when finishing second in the Jewson Novices Chase back in March.
“He’s schooled the last few weeks and seems very well and we’re very happy with him,” said the 34-year-old rider.
“He’s obviously got a big weight to carry and as he had such a fantastic year last year he begins off such a high handicap mark. Hopefully, if he can reproduce his run in the Punchestown handicap, that should give him every chance.
“He’s summered very well and it’s fingers crossed that he can pick up where he left off last season.
“There are usually some unexposed ones in there, last season they might have had problems and they could be improvers. Sometimes afterwards it’s easy looking at it saying no wonder they won off such a low mark.
“But Philip couldn’t be happier with him and hopefully he’ll run a very big race.”
Like Johnson, champion trainer Paul Nicholls is, almost unbelievably, seeking his first Paddy Power win – even though he recorded his 2,000th winner last weekend.
His primary hopes rest with the lightly weighted 100-30 favourite Mon Parrain who carries just 10st 8lb after coming to the fore when finishing second to Almost Waining in the Topham Trophy over the Grand National fences last April.
“He’s in good order. I took him to Exeter last week for a gallop (with Kauto Star and Big Buck’s) as everybody knows and I’m very happy with him,” said Nicholls.
“The only reason I took him to Exeter to give him a gallop is because he’s been slow coming to hand and I had a few little niggly things with him earlier in the year.”
The trainer with the best recent record in the race is Nigel Twiston-Davies, who has won two of the last three renewals with Imperial Commander and Little Josh.
This year he runs last month’s Cheltenham winner Billie Magern, the mount of his teenage son Sam who piloted Little Josh to glory 12 months ago, and Swincombe Rock. “Both have got good chances after running well on their first starts this season,” said the handler.
Locally, North Yorkshire trainer Ferdy Murphy hopes his Cheltenham Festival winner Divers can replicate L’Antartique’s triumph four years ago.
However, while the 2007 winner won his prep race at Carlisle, Divers was pulled up last month at the Cumbrian venue, though the trainer was quick to blame the tacky ground. Nevertheless it will take a remarkable training performance, and the brilliance of big race jockey Graham Lee, to confound the form book for the Let’s Live Racing syndicate.
“He’ll obviously need to run better than he did at Carlisle, but he worked well on Tuesday morning,” said the West Witton trainer.
“Graham was extremely happy with him after that and that’s good enough for me. We definitely don’t want any rain for him, he just couldn’t go through the ground at Carlisle but he showed at the Festival he bounces off good ground.”