Cheltenham Festival News

The 2021 Cheltenham Festival: Nicky Henderson's top ten contenders

By Harry Allwood@H_Allwood1
Thu 25 Feb 2021

Nicky Henderson will be seeking to reach 70 Cheltenham Festival winners this year having trained 68 so far, four less than Willie Mullins who is the most successful trainer of all time at the Cheltenham Festival.

It will be a surprise if he does not reach that figure next month, but with the serial Irish Champion trainer responsible for around half of the ante-post market leaders, it is hard to envisage Henderson closing the gap on Mullins.

Speaking on a zoom call organised by The Jockey Club on Thursday, Henderson reiterated his thoughts on the Dublin Racing Festival and the dominance of Willie Mullins at that meeting.

"It's going to be mighty competitive. You always say you’ll be happy to settle for one (winner at the Festival), and I mean that more than ever this year!" Henderson said.

The Seven Barrows handler, who is a best-priced 10-1 with William Hill to be crowned the leading trainer at the Festival for the fourth time, rattled through his team heading to Prestbury Park next month during the zoom call. Here's a guide to his top ten contenders.

ALTIOR

Age: 11. Race: Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Cheltenham form: 11111.

Overview: Outstanding chaser who has won 20 of his 22 starts over obstacles, including four victories at the Cheltenham Festival. Got back to winning ways at Newbury 12 months ago after a gruelling race against Cryname at Ascot on his previous start, but was no match for Nube Negra on his return in December.

Trainer comments: Altior could not be better and I’m very, very happy. His whole demeanour is in a better place than he has been this year. It hasn’t been easy and having looked invincible, luck hasn’t gone his way.

He raced very lazily and lacked his usual sharpness and accuracy at Kempton over Christmas. It was a pity Newbury had to go back a week and took us off our step a little bit. He takes his races quite hard and the feeling was that having closed it down to three weeks and two days, we were not going to run him in the Game Spirit.

As it turned out, the ground was very good at Newbury and we probably could have done but it enabled us to switch Champ and although it was quite an odd thing to do I am pleased it went that way.

Altior went off with Mister Fisher and had a good gallop, jumping fences. They were both in good form and it all went very well. I am very happy with where Altior is. He will have one more bit of work here and he is fit and seems very well. Chacun Pour Soi and plenty of others will be there but he is still there and will be sharper this time. There will be a battle and I am looking forward to it.

One has to remember he is 11 now and is on 11 year old legs. He has done very little wrong. One or two things have conspired against us and I have to go back to the race at Ascot last over 2m 5f on heavy ground against Cyrname.

Actually I would have a pound that even Paul (Nicholls) is slightly regretting it too as I think it bottomed both horses – they have both struggled to get back from that race. I would have given all the tea in China not to have run that day but I couldn’t have taken him out as everybody had been waiting for this clash but we stupidly went for it as our first run of the season. It did neither of them any good and both horses were struggling after.

But I am not struggling with Altior at the moment – he is good. It was a miracle when Sprinter Sacre came back and I don’t think you can hope for two miracles! If Altior won it would be very special. He has been a fantastic horse to have had.

I think it is something to be considered (Altior wearing headgear). It is something we have discussed. We have eliminated the Ryanair Chase as an option so we might look at something to try and sharpen him up over two miles.

BUVEUR D'AIR

Age: 10. Race: Unibet Champion Hurdle

Cheltenham form: 311F.

Overview: Dual Unibet Champion Hurdle winner who has scored eight times at Grade One level. Suffered an injury in the 2019 Fighting Fifth, and missed the whole of 2020 before finishing second on his first start for 420 days in The New One Unibet Hurdle in January.

Trainer comments: I actually think Buveur D’Air has been forgotten. He’s out with the washing at the moment (in the betting), whereas Epatante is sharing the favourite line with Honeysuckle and Goshen now as well.

It’s going to be very competitive.

CHAMP

Age: 9. Race: WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup

Cheltenham form: 2F1.

Overview: 2019 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle runner-up who made a successful transition to fences last season, apart from one blip in the Dipper, and stormed home, having looked booked for a place, to win a dramatic Brown Advisory Novices' Chase at last year's Festival. Has had his problems since, but returned with a promising second in the Game Spirit over two miles.

Trainer comments: It was an extraordinary performance in the RSA last year, reminiscent of dear old Might Bite. I was watching what was going on up front, but then he came back into sight and swept by them. That proved one thing – his stamina.

When we brought him in earlier this season, he was loose-schooling at Henrietta Knight’s and we could hear a noise we’d never heard before. It makes me wonder whether it had anything to do with what happened last year. Round about the second-last is where it could catch you out. It’s just a Henderson theory.

The Cotswold Chase was his alternative, but we thought that was better for Santini, certainly in that (soft) ground, then Champ would have come in for the Denman at Newbury – on the original weekend.

The move back a week, as commendable as it was, just interfered with plans and we decided against Altior running. Sometimes crazy ideas come into your head in the middle of the night and it occurred to me that three miles, first time out, three weeks and five days before his objective, put him in the ‘bounce factor’ bracket.

He’s an extraordinary horse because a week before the race he was working with On The Blind Side, a three-mile hurdler who isn’t good enough for the Stayers’ Hurdle. He’s not a good work horse, but it took Champ all day to get to him.

My assistant, Charlie Morlock, said he didn’t exactly look like a horse to run over two miles, but Champ at home and Champ on a racecourse – you wouldn’t know it was the same horse as he does nothing at home.

I was hoping we’d see what we saw as my head was on the chopping block for this ridiculous idea if it didn’t work. It worked because he could do it, but I didn’t know where he’d finish. It went well and his jumping at that pace was exceptional. We all came away very happy and he has been fine since.

CHAMPAGNE PLATINUM

Age: 7. Race: Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle

Overview: Reverted back to hurdles this season following an unsuccesful spell chasing, and has caught the eye on his past two runs, especially on his latest start in a Pertemps Qualifier at Haydock.

Trainers comments: He found jumping fences quite hard last year, and we had to school, school and school. It was difficult, we just brought him back over hurdles for a couple of runs and he went to Haydock the other day for the last Pertemps qualifier. It was the last throw of the dice and he ran a very good race to finish second on very soft ground.

He does go through flat spots, and I suspect cheekpieces might come back on for this. He did ok and finished well, so we’re thinking and hoping that Cheltenham will be a better track for him.

CHANTRY HOUSE

Age: 7. Race: Marsh Novices' Chase

Cheltenham form: 133.

Overview: Shaped with plenty of promise when third behind stablemate Shishkin in the Supreme last year, and is two from three over fences this season. Disappointed behind Fusil Raffles at Cheltenham in December, but got back on track with a smooth victory at Wetherby last time out.

Trainer comments: I was very pleased with Chantry House at Wetherby the other day. He was very impressive first time out at Ascot, and if you go back to last year he was a very good third in the Supreme, and we always felt he needed further. Ascot isn’t a place I would often choose for first time out novice chasers, but he was very good and won well.

We then went to Cheltenham, and he was very disappointing and completely forgot his jumping. He had a bit of surgery on his back and he did really well because Wetherby was only eight weeks after we’d corrected his back, so that was a pretty quick turnaround. I thought he jumped beautifully and travelled very well on horrible ground. He stays, touch wood he jumps, and the only problem is Envoi Allen!

DAME DE COMPAGNIE

Age: 8. Race: Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle

Cheltenham form: 51511.

Overview: Won last year's Coral Cup in good style, and looked to have a bright future over fences when scoring on her debut over the larger obstacles at Ayr in January. However, she was badly hampered and unseated her rider in a Grade One last time out and is set to revert back to hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival.

Trainers comments: We were a bit short of opportunities with Dame De Compagnie so we had to throw her into a Grade One (over fences), which was a bit of a baptism really. I think she’s very likely to come back over hurdles for this, and she’s in very good form.

The fall did her no harm, and I don’t see why she shouldn’t come back over hurdles. She showed in the Coral Cup that two and a half miles is her trip and I think it’s a good call.

We can always go back over fences, and she’s not ready for the Mares’ Chase as yet. JP has the favourite for that (Elimay), so we’re just trying to split the troops.

EPATANTE

Age: 7. Race: Unibet Champion Hurdle

Cheltenham form: 91.

Overview: High-class mare who was too good for her rivals in last year's Unibet Champion Hurdle. Returned with a scintillating victory in the Fighting Fifth, but was turned over at odds-on behind Silver Streak in the Christmas Hurdle. Had excuses on that occasion, and has been treated for a back issue since.

Trainer comments: Kempton was disappointing because she was very, very good in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle. Christmas just didn’t go her way, she wasn’t herself, but fair play to the winner Silver Streak, who was very good and set a proper test, and we were at no stage really in a position to have a crack at him.

We have a few things ironed out I hope because obviously she is better than that but Silver Streak was very good on the day and we weren’t - but I think we’re back in the right place now.

Newcastle was a bit of a mess because Silver Streak was taken out with another early on and that emptied the race a fair bit, but take nothing away from her, she was very impressive. She picked up Sceau Royal who was leading to the last and she went past him with so much class.

She looked wonderful there, and if we’ve got her back there, she’s got as good a chance as any.

MISTER FISHER

Age: 7. Race: Ryanair Chase

Cheltenham form: 814P1.

Overview: Useful hurdler who has taken his form to a new level over fences, and was last seen winning the rescheduled Peterborough Chase at Cheltenham where he defeated a useful field, including Kalashnikov. Is now rated 162, and looked unlucky not to finish closer in the Marsh Novices' Chase last year.

Trainer comments: I’d like to think he’s got a very good shout. He went away with Altior earlier this week and his jumping has been very good. He won the Peterborough Chase, which was moved from Huntingdon to Cheltenham, and put up a first-class performance.

He would very much like good ground. If he gets some decent ground, I think he’ll be very competitive.

SANTINI

Age: 9. Race: WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup

Cheltenham form: 13212.

Overview: Has been placed at the past three Cheltenham Festivals, including when a fast-finishing second in last year's Gold Cup. Has been a shade disappointing in three starts this season, and failed to land a blow in the Cotswold Chase last time out, a race he won in 2020.

Trainer comments: Santini has had a difficult season. He started at Aintree when it was essentially a Flat race when they took the fences out. He’s a huge horse, he ran a very good race that day and, in fact, Frodon was behind him.

We had no intention of running him in the King George, but there was just too much of a gap between Aintree and the Cotswold. He’s not a horse that sits still, he loves racing.

Not surprisingly he found the track sharper than ideal, but it was still a good exercise for him. Then the Cotswold Chase was off, Sandown took it on, but the ground was desperate. I was satisfied with him in third.

Champ’s run was obviously more eyecatching than Santini’s as he was running over the wrong trip. I’m very happy with Santini as it’s been a difficult winter with him. It’s not as if he’s coming in off three wins, but this is what he’s been waiting for.

Aidan Coleman will ride Santini in the Gold Cup, with Nico de Boinville on Champ.

SHISHKIN

Age: 7. Race: Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices' Chase

Cheltenham form: 1.

Overview: Overcame plenty of trouble in running to win the Supreme Novices' Hurdle last year and has looked a potential superstar on his first three starts over fences this season. His jumping has been almost flawless, and he looks capable of being the next Altior, or Sprinter Sacre.

Trainer comments: It’s amazing how this race has changed. Three or four weeks ago Shishkin was odds-on and everyone was saying it would be boring, but all of a sudden Willie (Mullins) has come along with his two-mile novice (Energumene) and I think Allmankind was impressive again at Warwick.

There’s a real fight on now and I think people are seeing it as one of the big headline clashes of the week. He’s got a couple of bits of work to do and will have another school. Everything is fairly well on course at the moment.

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