By Andy Stephens at Seven Barrows
Nicky Henderson played down his chances on Tuesday of creating history by becoming the first trainer to saddle the winners of Cheltenham Festival’s biggest three prizes in the same week.
The most successful trainer in the history of the meeting has the favourites for the Unibet Champion Hurdle, Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase and Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup in Buveur D’Air, Altior and Might Bite.Henderson with Buveur D'Air and My Tent Or Yours on Tuesday (PA)
The trio, along with triple Champion Hurdle runner-up My Tent Or Yours, looked in great shape when paraded at the four-time champion’s Seven Barrows yard in Lambourn and collectively are little more than 10-1 to achieve the treble.
However, many of the most celebrated names in the sport, including Vincent O’Brien, Fulke Walwyn, Michael Dickinson, Paul Nicholls and Henderson himself, have had to settle for the fact that two out of three ain’t bad when it comes to winning the three most glittering jewels.
The 67-year-old, seeking to add to his 58 Festival wins, also recalled a similar situation during his days as assistant to the legendary Fred Winter in 1973.
“One year, during my days with Fred, we had the three favourites for those races and guess what happened?” he said. “The Dikler beat Pendil (in the Gold Cup); Inkslinger beat Crisp (in the Champion Chase) and Comedy Of Errors beat Bula (in the Champion Hurdle).
“There you go - we went in with three favourites and came away with zilch. That is the position we are in.”
Perhaps it is not surprising that, almost 60 years after the races have been cemented together, nobody has pulled off the treble.
There is an aggregate of seven and a quarter miles to be galloped plus 43 fences or hurdles to be negotiated, not to mention the contests attracting the elite in each division.
It still seems inconceivable that Henderson’s biggest hitters will all fluff their lines.
Between them, Buveur D’Air, Altior and Might Bite have won their past 26 races and accumulated a dozen Grade One victories.
The first two-named are odds-on for their respective assignments, while Might Bite probably would be if it could be guaranteed that (a) he will stay the distance and (b) not take a detour after the final fence like he did last year when landing the RSA Chase.
Watch the closing stages of the RSA Chase
“I think of the three, Might Bite probably has the most to prove, whereas the other boys are proven,” Henderson said. “Might Bite has got to stay and make sure no funny quirks develop.”
After posing for numerous photos with the three, he said: “It’s a nice position to be in, of course it is, and I’m a lucky boy (to have them). I’m fortunate these horses have come around at the same time.
“Good horses help good horses, there is no doubt about that. They help each other.
“They lift the standard all the way through. It’s like when you get a bunch of good young horses, or a yard where all the two-year-olds are flying - they will take themselves to a level above what they actually are because the tail-end charlie has to do that to keep up.
“I don’t say Altior makes Might Bite a better horse or visa versa but it’s funny how it goes like that.”
The whole season revolves around The Festival and, naturally, there is huge pressure involved.
This is the time of the year when Henderson’s sleep pattern suffers and the time when he dreads walking among his 140 horses at evening stables - perhaps almost a third bound for The Festival - and discovering one with a problem.
But he would not change it.
“I’d rather have the pressure, or the responsibility of minding these guys, to get them there and get it right, than having a nice peaceful nights and not worrying about it all.
“If I didn’t have them you guys would not be here and I’d be watching the Winter Olympics - or perhaps out somewhere trying to buy a better horse.”
Altior is unbeaten in 12 races over obstacles and, having had a wind operation, returned with an imperious defeat of Politologue in the Betfair Exchange Chase at Newbury last month.
Henderson says comparisons with him and the mighty Sprinter Sacre are still premature and that is also reflected by official ratings - Altior boasts a mark of 170 whereas Sprinter Sacre, who twice won the Champion Chase despite heart problems in between those victories, was awarded 188 at his peak.
“Altior has got to this point but now has to go and win his Champion Chase and then take it to the next level - then you can start comparing them,” he said.
Twelve months ago Irish-trained horses ran riot in the Cotswolds and made history by winning 19 of the 28 races. Three weeks from now, Henderson will stand in the way of Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott, Jessica Harrington et al potentially dishing out an even bigger drubbing.
Excluding the handicaps at the meeting, Ireland have 13 of the ante-post favourites and Henderson has four. The odd one out is Willoughby Court, the JLT Novices' Chase market leader, trained by Ben Pauling, Henderson’s former assistant.
“We have got to beat Ireland, haven’t we?” Henderson said, raising his voice as if trying to be heard across the water.
“(Paul) Nicholls and I are having a board meeting tomorrow. We have got to work out how to beat them.
“Between the two of them (Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott) they are bloody strong - and Jessie’s (Harrington) got some serious chances as well.
“I enjoy that competition but they are two massive operations. We’ve got a fantastic team but they are very, very strong and there is nothing we can do about it.”
Asked which horse he would transfer into his yard from a rival, given the choice, he nominated Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle favourite Samcro, albeit for tactical reasons as he trains On The Blind Side, who is second favourite for the race.Apple's Shakira is unbeaten in three starts at Cheltenham (PA)
He reckons his team of novice hurdlers are stronger than his novice chasers and is looking forward to unleashing three-time course winner Apple’s Shakira, his Triumph Hurdle favourite, on better ground.
Trainers usually shy away from talking about horses trained in other yards but, looking at the meeting through the eyes of a racing fan, you get the feeling he would like to see Douvan and Faugheen somewhere near the best for their clashes with Altior and Buveur D’Air.
“It’s great, we want those horses there,” he said. “We’ve always said the Douvan/Altior clash was something everyone was waiting for. We’ve both had problems. I talk to Willie but he’s not exactly going to tell me if Douvan is doing that or doing this. He’s not going to tell you that, either!
“It’s the same with Faugheen - he’s the most potent danger to Buveur D’Air. Normally, you would be thinking we are the underdog but at the moment it’s turned around the other way.
“But don’t dare underestimate anybody, let alone Willie and those horses because they are very, very good.”
Nobody said winning the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup was going to be easy.
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