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Nicky Henderson looking to take tried-and-tested route with Champ

Wed 25 Mar 2020

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Champ could start off his journey towards the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup in the Future Stars Intermediate Chase at Sandown in November.

Trainer Nicky Henderson has earmarked the Listed prize, which he claimed last year with Gold Cup runner-up Santini, as a possible first port of call for the JP McManus-owned eight-year-old.

After losing his unbeaten record over fences at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day with a late fall in the Dipper Novices’ Chase, Champ returned to winning ways to claim a remarkable victory in this year’s RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase at the Festival.

Watch a full replay of Champ's remarkable RSA win

Henderson said: “I don’t see why he can’t be a Gold Cup horse next season. He is top class, there is no doubt about it.

“There is every chance we could use the intermediate chase at Sandown for Champ which we won this season with Santini.

“There are not a million races for these sort of horses. It would be a perfectly good place to start.”

While not surprised Champ left his previous fall behind, Henderson was taken aback by the victory at Cheltenham, as he still had more than eight lengths to find on both Minella Indo and Allaho after the last.

He added: “It wasn’t a surprise that he won, as we all knew that he could do that.

“He had done nothing wrong all season, he just had that one fall at Cheltenham. I wanted to run him again before the Festival, but I never had the opportunity to go anywhere.

“Where all that came from at the end, I don’t know. It was an extraordinary performance from the horse and from Barry Geraghty.”

For Champ to be a genuine contender in next year’s Gold Cup, for which he is general 14-1 chance, Henderson believes there is one thing he needs to improve on.

Watch what our experts made of the Gold Cup

He said: “We have got one area we need to improve on and that is we have got to brush up his jumping and we can do that.

“He is OK at doing it, but he has just got his own way of doing it. It just needs to be sharpened up.”

Henderson is likely to have two major players in the Gold Cup next year with all roads leading back to a second shot at the race for this year’s runner-up Santini.

He said: “He ran the race of his life. A bit softer ground could have worked well, but there was no excuses.

“That was only his sixth start over fences in his life and his third time around Cheltenham and he has not put a foot wrong.

“He is big, raw horse that has the potential to win the Gold Cup, which he will be aimed at again.”

While Henderson has mapped out a potential early season plan for Champ, he remains undecided which route to take with Santini.

He said: “I don’t really see Haydock (Betfair Chase) suiting him or Kempton (King George), but we will have to see as it is all a long way off.

“It is to premature to say where he will go, as plenty of things can happen between now and the autumn.”

One thing Henderson believes could have assisted Santini in the Gold Cup was a stronger pace – something 2018 winner Native River would almost certainly have provided had he not missed the race through injury.

He said: “When Native River came out of the race I thought, ‘good, that will slow it down’ – but in hindsight it would have been a good thing for us.

“A good gallop would have set it up better for us, but it wasn’t the case.”

Henderson dismissed talk of retirement for Grade One winner Might Bite and instead hinted at a campaign over the cross country fences next season for the 11-year-old, after he finished seventh in the Glenfarclas Chase at the Festival.

He said: “There is most certainly no plan to retire Might Bite. He really enjoyed himself over the cross-country fences.

“The ground was violently against him, but that (cross country) is what he will be doing next season and it was a good experience for him.”

Henderson also provided updates on a number of his other stable stars to Unibet.

Altior

Henderson gives an update on Altior and plans for next season (courtesy of Unibet)

Altior was the most frustrating part of the whole week, it was tragic. It [the Champion Chase] was built as the race of the week, with three proper two mile chasers and Altior holding the crown. We thought he was in fantastic form. His work after the Game Spirit was excellent and his schooling was frighteningly good. We thought we were all set for what was going to be this great race with Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Por Soi.

We were the first out, we got this splint, there was nothing I could do. It’s one of those things that rears its ugly head from time to time, but they have a horrible habit of doing it at the most inconvenient time. It has never been a problem all his life.

It has been there all along, but it has never interfered with him and we did everything we could but I couldn’t get him sound. Then on the morning of the race Chacun Por Soi is out with an abscess in his foot.

You couldn’t believe that was going to happen. Defi Du Seuil was left with what seemed an easy task but it just shows there is no certainty in the game, because I am afraid that Defi Du Seuil wasn’t Defi Du Seuil on the day. It left Politologue, who is an honourable gentleman of the highest order, but Altior is unbeaten against him, so it did make it slightly more frustrating.

It will be back to two miles next season. If there had been Aintree and he was ok, I would have had no worries about going two and a half miles at Aintree. That wouldn’t have worried me one bit and I would have liked to have done it, but that’s all over and we are not going to go to Punchestown so we will put him away.

Shishkin, Chantry House and Allart (all ran in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle)

Shishkin is very good and he won despite a pretty troubled passage. Things didn’t go at all well. The ground was probably plenty soft enough for him on the first day.

When you have got these very speedy horses that have very good changes of pace, very soft ground almost certainly doesn’t suit them, they are not sloggers.

We had a pretty strong team with Shishkin and Chantry House, who I’d preferred to have run over two and a half miles but then we would have bumped into Envoi Allen and that was probably the one horse to be avoided. Allart actually ran a great race as well. They finished first, third and fifth, so it was a strong hand to play in the opening skirmish.

I wouldn’t be so sure about Allart (going chasing next season), I think he has got unfinished business over hurdles. Chantry House certainly looks like he could go chasing and Shishkin we will have to just look and see. The main thing is he managed to win the Supreme Hurdle and the two of them - Abracadabras and Shishkin - they pulled a long way clear of Chantry House who is a very good horse in his own right, we know that.

It was actually Joe Donnelly’s other horse, Asterion Forlonge, who caused the trouble. It would have been a bitter blow if his own horse took his other horse out. It took us into the car park and Nico had a big problem on his hands from there to get back in, get back onto a racing line and then get the horse to pick up again.

I think the only reason he got back into the race so well was that he has the tactical speed to get himself out of trouble. That was where his class came in. I think he has an enormously high future.

Epatante, Fusil Raffles and Pentland Hills (all ran in the Unibet Champion Hurdle)

The Verdict: How good was this year's Champion Hurdle?

Epatante became quite a firm favourite after her performance in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and everything had gone right at home, except we did have a couple of days where she coughed. We had to make a statement to say that she was coughing, despite all the tests saying she was alright.

In the current day and age if she coughs twice you have got to tell the whole world. Actually, having announced that she had coughed for two days, she must have read the paper because she stopped immediately. It frightens the living daylights out of you, that’s why we all say the last three or four weeks before Cheltenham are horrible.

One minute Epatante is coughing and Altior is great and then the next minute, Epatante has stopped coughing and Altior is lame. You can imagine what it is like. It is not a lot of fun.

She started the season in a second-season handicap at Newbury, The Gerry Feilden Hurdle, which has always been a good race, but it is a handicap for second season horses and I wouldn’t think a horse has come from there to the Champion Hurdle too often. She just had the one other run in the Christmas Hurdle and I was never going to run her again before the Unibet Champion Hurdle.

She was foot perfect in the Champion Hurdle. Barry gave her a beautiful ride, he had a lovely run through, he was always in the right place and her jumping is very slick. The interesting thing you would take from this year’s Cheltenham is that the mares look particularly good, with the two in the Mares’ Hurdle – Honeysuckle and Benie Des Dieux - you can be sure if we went to Punchestown, I could see it being very much a girls’ race. I would say they would be the best three in the race by quite some way.

She has come out of the race really well. We discussed the rest of the season, under the assumption that racing was going ahead, and I said the one thing I wouldn’t want to do is go to Aintree because the Aintree Hurdle is two and a half miles and I have no desire to go over two and a half miles, especially only three weeks after Cheltenham.

The rest of them were all a bit disappointing.

Fusil Raffles has been an enigma this year and Pentland Hills - they were the two best four-year olds last year. We all know that the four-year olds have a notoriously difficult time in their second season and so it proved. Now that everything has come to a standstill we are a month ahead of the normal end of the season and we are now going into the period of time where we check everything out - if there is anything to be done, mended or repaired.

We cauterized Pentland Hills’ pallet, which only takes a week, and it is possible that it needs more doing to it. That was only a hunch, Nico felt he was making a noise at Cheltenham, in which case we may need to go further and do a bit more, but we have got all the time in the world to do that now.

Champ (extra detail to the above)

Watch what Henderson has to say about to Champ

It surprised me as much as it probably surprised everybody on the racecourse. Everything looked to be going fairly well until after three out.

He just wasn’t going as well as the two horses were up front and then, after the second last, I thought we looked certain to finish third. We were well clear of the fourth, but the first two had flown and they jumped the last together, they had gone and I was rather dejectedly having to settle for third place.

I knew that he couldn’t get caught by the fourth, he wasn’t going to win, I went to watch what was happening up the front. I was watching the two front horses and suddenly Champ’s head appears. All of a sudden Champ roars into the picture goes between them like a knife through butter and is just going to go further and further away, it was an extraordinary performance. Whether they had gone a bit hard up front and probably just caught him for a bit of toe coming down the hill.

It was his first run over three miles, we had purposely kept him to two and a half miles all the way through. He was learning well until he had that fall in January, at the second last, when he was going to win comfortably. If he had won that day I wasn’t going to run him again.

Then I wanted to run him again, but there was nowhere to go - the ground and the weather, everything was wrong. We took him to a racecourse for a good school, that went well and I am the first to admit he has got to brush up his jumping. It’s been the same all the way through. It’s good and it has had to be good to be winning any of the races he won, let alone the RSA. Luckily, he was very good at the last and that is what got his momentum going.

We left him in the Stayers’ Hurdle all the way through, which probably tells you that we had a little overlying worry about his jumping, especially after that fall. If the schooling hadn’t of gone well, if the racecourse school hadn’t been satisfactory, we had him in the Stayers’ as a back-up and I would have had no hesitation in switching him back to hurdles had it been necessary. Luckily, we thought it wasn’t necessary.

You’d have to say that the Gold Cup is the plan and quite possibly the King George en-route, that is the obvious one. I have a plan in the back of my head as to what I want to do and I think it will involve him going away to do some loose schooling just to brush up.

I have spoken to JP McManus about it and I have already mentioned it to Henrietta Knight, which is where I would like him to go in the autumn, to go and have an intensive session of Jumping so that we are going to be slicker and better and then I think he is a Gold Cup horse. AP McCoy, I know, has always said this is a Gold Cup horse.

Dame De Compagnie (Coral Cup)

Dame De Compagnie has been good all year, she is lovely. She is talented, she is gorgeous, she has got everything, she is a beautiful looking mare. She had won a mares’ handicap at Cheltenham before Christmas. That on its own didn’t look earth shattering but she did that well and for one reason or another we didn’t run her again even though I wanted to. As it transpired, we just went straight there and she was good and tough too.

Santini (Gold Cup - extra detail)

I think just going from the second last to the last, he just lacked a little bit of tactical pace and just couldn’t quicken at the ideal moment.

Native River, we would of all assumed would be making the running in the Gold Cup. When it was announced, sadly for the Tizzard team, he wasn’t taking his chance the big question was where is the pace going to come from? Bristol De Mai didn’t look like he really wanted to force it this time which probably led to a slower pace than might have suited us, because it enabled the others to quicken.

Going to the last, he just couldn’t quite find that gear that they had and so landing over the last he has actually got a considerable amount of work to do. Unless he was going to find a Champ-like turn of foot, that I didn’t know he had, he wasn’t going to get there. Consequently, he couldn’t get between the two horses, which was the telling moment, because then he did have to come round. To be fair to him, once he got round and got galvanised again, he did run on very strongly. He is a good stayer.

You could have had a stronger-run race, you could have actually had softer ground than it was, because they had a lovely strip of very good ground kept for the Gold Cup, which hasn’t been used since last year’s Gold Cup. It was probably every bit as good as he needed. If you’d run it the day before it might have suited him better, but no complaints whatsoever. We were all thrilled with him. It was only the sixth steeplechase of his life.

_Road To Cheltenham: Lydia Hislop and Ruby Walsh refelct on each day of the Cheltenham Festival _

Might Bite (Cross Country Chase - extra detail)

Might Bite really enjoyed himself despite the heavy ground which he hates and that was his best run of the year. I said to Nico “go out there, enjoy yourself for as long as he is enjoying it and when he is not, that’s enough”.

I think it is very hard to win one of those cross-country races at your first attempt, so go and get a couple of laps of experience and Cross country chasing is what we will do next year - that is what the plan. He will be going out in the field now and we will bring him back next year to contest the five or six cross country races during the season. Unfortunately, some of them are handicaps, which is going to be difficult for him anyway because he is so highly-rated.

I mentioned the Grand National to Nico, but you never know all sorts of things could happen. Nico thought he needed to come back to a less than three miles and Henderson goes and runs him over four miles! Normally we agree on these things but on this I do beg to differ with Nico, I think he is a genuine stayer.

Buveur D’air

We would love Buveur D’air back and there is every reason to hope that he will be. It was about as freak an injury as you will ever see. The only thing that you will learn from that is there are things that happen in a year that we have not seen in 40 years now. You bump into something that you scarcely believe could happen.

He wedged this piece of hurdle right down through his coronet band under the hoof. It came out of the pedal bone at the base of the hoof and they consequently had to cut out a huge piece of the front hoof in order to get all the woodwork out. Now he has got to grow a whole two inches of hoof to go back across the front of it. It is going slowly, the healing of a hoof speeds up a lot with the warmer weather. I suppose it is a bit like tree’s growing in the summer, hopefully hooves do to.

Ok Corral (Irish Grand National Update)

Without the Grand National, OK Coral found himself with nowhere to go but luckily he is in the Irish Grand National. He has already gone to Ireland on the grounds that they have said at the moment, no English horses.

I don’t know whether that is for day to day racing or if that is going to include the likes of the Irish Grand National and Punchestown. Consequently, OK Coral has already gone to Ireland in anticipation, he is going to be trained in Ireland for the Irish Grand National.

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