By Andy Stephens at Lambourn
Nicky Henderson is hopeful of landing a sixth Betfair Hurdle success at Newbury on Saturday but the trainer says splitting his five contenders is beyond him.
Henderson will run Jenkins (8-1 with Betfair), Verdana Blue (14-1), Charlie Parcs (16-1), Kayf Grace (10-1) and Lough Derg Spirit (10-1) in the £155,000 feature, with the race sponsor making him 7-4 to lift the prize with one of the quintet.
Speaking to the media at his yard at Seven Barrows in Lambourn on Tuesday, he was invited on several occasions, in a variety of ways, to nominate his No 1 contender. But he kept the straightest of bats.
Jockey plans also remain undecided, although it seems certain 16-year-old James Bowen will continue his thriving association with Jenkins - the combination having clicked together at Kempton and Ascot.
“We’ve won it a few times and had good chances but I can’t think I’ve ever been in with five who were all such genuine contenders,” Henderson said. “There’s no dead wood among them that’s for sure.
“I’m going to have a competition among the staff and give a prize to anyone who correctly predicts what order they will finish in - even if its 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th.Henderson believes his five Betfair Hurdle runners are all contenders (PA)
“They are five horses with five different owners. All are dead keen to go, so why not? They all have realistic chances but then there 20 others in the race saying the same thing.”
Later, over lunch, I handed Henderson my own entry: 1 Kayf Grace; 2 Verdana Blue; 3 Jenkins; 4 Lough Derg Spirit; 5 Charli Parcs. The trainer did not dismiss my effort out of hand, put the bit of paper in his pocket and still refused to suggest where I might be right or wrong.
Henderson last won the race in 2013, when he saddled six runners and My Tent Or Yours won under Tony McCoy in the colours of JP McManus.
This time Henderson and McManus will combine with Charli Parcs but the trainer believes Barry Geraghty, retained by the owner, will instead partner the Willie Mullins-trained Bleu Et Rouge.
He also said nothing should be read into the fact that Verdana Blue remains engaged in the Unibet Champion Hurdle, insisting that the mare’s owners, Crimbourne Stud, were behind the entry.
“They are the most enthusiastic team of people you will ever come across - I love them to bits,” the champion trainer said. “That’s what we were asked to do - that’s what we are doing (run in the Champion Hurdle).
“She’s a very good filly and on quick ground she’s a really, really good filly. On very fast ground, she’d be deadly.”
For balance, he outlined the attributes of the other quartet.
"I think Kayf Grace has a great chance,” he said. “She has issues with muscle enzymes, but we did her blood on Monday and it has never been better, which is very pleasing.
"I like Lough Derg Spirit. I think he ran a great race in the Elite Hurdle (in November) and this has always been the objective.
"Charli Parcs ran a good race at Newbury the first time. He might be the worry if we get a lot of snow and very soft ground, but his work is excellent.Might Bite heads straight to the Gold Cup (PA)
"Jenkins was very keen throughout the Ascot race (last time) over two-mile-three. I was worried he was doing too much but it didn't stop him coming home well. I was very impressed."
Henderson will not be represented in the Betfair Denman Chase, with his chief Gold Cup contender Might Bite instead heading straight to Cheltenham in March.
"He did a bit of work this morning on the grass and Nico (de Boinville) rode him and Altior," said the trainer. “What a cushy morning he had!
"There is a plan for a racecourse gallop. It is unlikely to be at Newbury this weekend but we will go somewhere in a fortnight.
"He could have two (racecourse gallops) if we wanted to, but I doubt it. He is a very clean (winded) horse."
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