By Andy Stephens at Seven Barrows in Lambourn
Britain’s leading Festival trainer is set to unleash one of his most powerful squads at the biggest meeting of the year and, in addition to an all-out assault on the opening day showpiece, said at his Seven Barrows base on Tuesday that leading contenders such as Santini (Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup), Altior (Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase), Shishkin (Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle) and Champ (RSA Chase) were all just where he wanted them to be.
He posed for pictures with four-time Festival winner Altior and the magnificent-looking Santini, plus lined up his quintet for the Champion Hurdle. “We are being stupid enough to run them all in the same race,” he said. "We will probably have a game in the yard, trying to name the order they all finish in. I suspect nobody will get it right and I will keep the prize."
Who can blame him for going in mob-handed in a year when the £450,000 contest features no stand-out performer and is there for the taking?
Michael Dickinson famously saddled the first five home in the Gold Cup in 1983 but Henderson, seeking to add to the 64 Festival winners he has accumulated, laughed at the notion of mirroring that effort. “Pigs might fly” he said with a smile.
Henderson would have had a sixth contender had Buveur D’Air, winner of the race in 2017 and 2018, not suffered a freak injury at Newcastle in November when part of a hurdle became lodged in his hoof.
Nicky Henderson’s FIVE Unibet Champion Hurdle contenders. “We are going to be stupid enough to run them all in the same race” says the trainer! #cheltenhamfestival @CheltenhamRaces pic.twitter.com/O8U2DgZb6C— Racing TV (@RacingTV) February 17, 2020
Thankfully, the two-time champ is on the road to recovery and his trainer relayed he will soon be well enough to continue his recuperation at his owner JP McManus’s base in Ireland. If his stablemate Epatante, in the same ownership, wants any advice on how to bound up the hill to glory then she might have to facetime him while he is munching a carrot or five at Martinstown.
Epatante is the general 3-1 favourite after her stylish victory in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day but memories of her tame run when well-fancied for mares’ novices’ hurdle at the Festival last year linger. Some have put two and two together and come to the conclusion she requires a flat track but Henderson reckons they have got their sums wrong.
He instead attributes her below-par display to having had to have a flu vaccination in the build-up to the race at a time when equine flu briefly threatened to derail the sport.
“I thought she was one of our best chances last year and it was disappointing,” he said. “Four or five of ours didn’t turn up last year and I’d have to say, with all of them, that it was the flu vaccinations. I would think she fell into the same square.”
Pentland Hills was a pleasant surprise package for Henderson 12 months ago, defying odds of 20-1 with a fluent win in the Triumph Hurdle. Those who dismissed it as a fluke had to think again when he followed up at Aintree.
Henderson tells Anthony Dunkley about Altior and others among his team
He was superb for 90 per cent or his comeback run in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in Decemeber; then all class for 99 per cent of his latest run at Haydock. But on both occasions he was beaten after finding less than looked likely when it mattered most.
“I could excuse him at Cheltenham as it was first time out and he didn’t quite get up the hill,” Henderson said. “You have to say at Haydock it was a bit disappointing, although he did run a very good race.
“We’ve cauterised his palate since Haydock, although I doubt it will make any difference. There can be what we call “silent noises” and it feels a bit like that. It’s not a wind-op and non-evasive. It’s more like getting out a screwdriver and tightening a screw.
“He worked very well on Saturday and seems in great form. We might drop him in a bit more but he’s such a good jumper that he takes you there.”
By all accounts, Fusil Raffles is anything but a flashy worker but “can come into it”, while International Hurdle winner Call Me Lord is being freshened up after a subsequent dull effort at Sandown and “will join in”.
How good was Altior at Newbury last time?
Henderson’s fifth Champion Hurdle contender, Verdana Blue, preferably requires some 'good' in the going description. Simon Claisse, clerk of the course at Cheltenham, was on hand to report that it is at present a mix of soft and heavy after Storm Dennis paid a visit over the weekend. Better him, it seems, than the Beast From The East from a couple of years ago.
“They would not be going there if I didn’t think they had a realistic chance,” Henderson said, by way of summary.
The following day, Altior will seek to become the first three-time winner of the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase since Badsworth Boy in the 1980s.
Despite winning 20 of his 21 races – and having won at the Festival for the past four years – he is not even certain to start favourite with the younger legs of Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi needing to be contained.
Henderson still cannot forgive himself for running Altior first time out against Cyrname over 2m 5f at Ascot in November. You want to tell him to try and forget it; move on; but he seems to find comfort in confession.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time on the wrong ground over the wrong trip. I could not have made a worse job of it if I tried,” he said.
“There was so much hype [about the race]. I should have been the spoil-sport and taken him out, but I didn't and paid the penalty. It was a bruising race.”
Altior was then troubled by an abscess on his withers; so much so that Henderson regards his run at Newbury last season as akin to his first of the season.
His star appeared to hit a flat patch before clicking into top gear after the final fence but Henderson reckons he was “taking a blow” and was entitled to do so. "As soon as Nico [De Boinville] asked the question he got the answer very quickly," he said.
Assessing the opposition, he added: “It’s a seriously good Champion Chase; a big battle; a big game; and he will need to be at his best. He’s fresh and well, and the better the ground the better he will be.”
Henderson added he would also love to run Altior over half a mile further at Aintree’s Grand National meeting in April but it will depend on how much Cheltenham takes out of his sails. “He’s good at telling Nico when he’s on song or ten degrees under,” he said.
Santini has been placed at the past two Festivals, in novice company, and will attempt to make it third time lucky in the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup on the Friday.
He’s a tall, magnificent-looking thoroughbred who is perhaps only now reaching his peak in terms of ability and maturity.
Henderson reckons he ran an “amazing race” when splitting Topofthegame and Delta Work in the RSA Chase last year because his preparation had been affected by having to miss a prep run; having an unexpected flu jab; and then suffering a late foot scare which threatened his participation.
It is tempting fate with the Festival still three weeks away but, this time, everything is going like clockwork with a victory in the Cotswold Chase last month serving him ideally.
Henderson said: “He was exactly the opposite to Altior. From day one you knew he [Altior] was a rocket, whereas Santini, the first year he was here I said to Richard [Kelvin-Hughes, owner] ‘He is not a bumper horse’.
“He should be a better horse than last season because he is a big, old-fashioned type of chaser. He is just starting work again now and did a bit on Saturday. He is a very enthusiastic horse and loves his work. He needs a lot of it - the more you get into him the better he is.
“He had a tough enough race at Cheltenham [last time], but he has come back bouncing.”
Henderson will be 70 this year but he, too, is bouncing. You sense the Festival cannot come quick enough for him and his team. And if his five runners happen to fill the first five places in the Champion Hurdle then look out for that Prestbury Park pig powering into the Cotswold sky.
Select any odd to add a bet