Nicky Henderson has another power-packed team for the Cheltenham Festival, with Paddy Power making him just 11-10 to train three winners or more.
There are very few races that the 69-year-old will not be represented in and those who fancy he will enjoy a bonanza can get 10-1 that he has at least five winners.
Certainly, it will be a huge shock if he fails to hit the target over the four days. Here's a guide to his top ten contenders plus the best of the rest of his squad.
Age: 10. Race: Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Cheltenham form: 11111
Overview: Outstanding performer who has won 20 of his 21 races over jumps – his only defeat coming first time out this year behind Cyrname at Ascot when upped to 2m5f. Has won the past two renewals of the Champion Chase, having won the Arkle and Supreme Novices’ before that. Back to winning ways at Newbury latest.
Trainer comments: All is going well with Altior. He has been ticking over since Newbury and will have a couple of schools before Cheltenham. I seldom school him but I think he just enjoys it. If we take Newbury as Altior's first run of the season, which you have to really, it was perfect. If you were coming into the Tingle Creek or something on the back of that, you would say we are absolutely spot on.
The disaster was the first run of the year - in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong ground over the wrong trip. I could not have made a worse job of it if I had tried! If it wasn't for the hype and build-up around the race, I should have really been the spoilsport and taken him out on the morning of the race. But you couldn't. It would have been a walkover and Ascot would not have been very happy with me, nor would the rest of the world.
I paid the penalty for running him because it took him until Newbury to get over it. In fairness, I think Paul [Nicholls] says the same thing with Cyrname. It was a bruising race we had at Ascot, both having our first run of the season. Had they run before it in a prep-race, I suspect both of them would have been all right. Altior was exhausted and there was no question of him running at Christmas.
It looks a seriously good Champion Chase and should be a big battle. Altior is certainly fresh and well now, and the better ground, the better he will be. I suspect Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi probably handle softer ground better than we do, although Altior has won on soft ground. You saw at Newbury how Altior can change gear. You have to ask the question, and once Nico (de Boinville, jockey) did, he answered very quickly.
Age: 8. Race: RSA Insurance Chase.
Cheltenham form: 2F
Overview: Won Grade One novice hurdle events at Newbury and Aintree last season – finishing runner-up in the Ballymore in between. Landed his first two races over fences at Newbury, not without a scare, before falling two out when looking in command in the Dipper Chase at Cheltenham last time.
Trainer comments: Champ will have a racecourse gallop. He has been doing lots of schooling and seems in cracking form. I would have liked another run, and we were going to go to Kelso but that was off. There was one race left for him at Chepstow, but I did not want to send him there over three miles on testing ground. He will have a school somewhere over fences before Cheltenham.
Pym could also go for the RSA. He did not like the ground at Ascot. It was horrible and he could not get out of it. He is not the most robust horse compared to the likes of Champ or Santini who are big, strong horses. Up until Ascot, Pym had done nothing wrong and you have to put a line through it.
Age: 6. Race: Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle or Ballymore Novices' Hurdle.
Cheltenham form: 1
Overview: Unbeaten in three starts, winning a bumper at Warwick in March (strong form) before landing novice hurdle wins at Cheltenham and Newbury. Untested at a higher grade but yet to be extended and difficult to know how good he might be.
Trainer comments: Obviously, Philip [Hobbs] has Sporting John and we have Chantry House, and I am sure JP [McManus] has others. Chantry House is a very solid horse - he is lovely. He was very green at Cheltenham in December and then at Newbury last week he was foot perfect the whole way. He travelled like a good horse, jumped like a good horse, and went away from them like a good horse. The opposition were not that bad either.
I am pretty sure Shishkin will not be our only runner in the Supreme. Son Of Camas and Buzz are in the Dovecote on Saturday. Glynn certainly would want two and a half miles. I want to run Allart this week - I think he is quite good."
Age: 6. Race: Unibet Champion Hurdle.
Cheltenham form: 9
Overview: Fluffed her lines when favourite for the Mares’ Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham last season but flawless this term – winning a handicap hurdle at Newbury off 137 before jumping in class and landing the Grade One Christmas Hurdle in fluent fashion at Kempton.
Trainer comments: There was not much to go for with Epatante after the Christmas Hurdle. I did not feel that she needed to do anything else. She will go to Kempton for a gallop.
Last year, there were four or five who did not turn up at The Festival like they should have done and I would have said with all of them it was probably due to flu vaccinations. I know it was [the case] with three because I knew we were struggling here. I think Epatante fell into the same bracket.
I have read in places that she can only go on flat tracks and things like that, just because she did not run very well at Cheltenham the only time she has been there. Sure, if the same happens again this year, I will have to think again, but at the moment I have no worries.
This time last year, I thought Epatante in the Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle [finished ninth as 15-8 favourite] was one of our best chances of the week. It was very disappointing, but I could name a couple more who definitely did not perform because of the flu.
Age: 11. Race: Glenfarclass Cross Country Chase.
Cheltenham form: 15712PP
Overview: The 2017 RSA Chase winner beat all bar Native River in a compelling Gold Cup 12 months later. Went one better at Aintree the following month but since then the wheels have rather fallen off. The Cross Country Chase would be a lowering of his sights.
Trainer comments: Might Bite will hopefully go for the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase. He had not trained with the other horses before Newbury. He had been doing his own thing, jumping all sorts of spooky things around here, and he absolutely loved it. I would like to get two practice sessions into him over the cross country course beforehand.
Age: 6. Race: Marsh Novices’ Chase.
Cheltenham form: 81
Overview: Has won his past two starts over fences at Cheltenham and Doncaster. Came up short at the Festival last year when eighth in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Trainer comments: I would have thought Mister Fisher will go for the Marsh Novices' Chase. I would be surprised if we didn't, but he is quick and we will definitely have a look at the Arkle, as there does not seem to be anything in England blatantly obvious for that race.
You may find that the two-and-a-half mile is the stronger race, in which case we could drop back because I would not be frightened to. It could be a late decision. He does want the best ground you can get though.
Age: 5. Race: Unibet Champion Hurdle.
Cheltenham form: 15
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
Overview: Fair performer on the Flat who was a surprise 20-1 winner of the Triumph Hurdle last year. Proved it was no fluke by following up at Aintree. Travelled strongly when a close fifth on his return in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham, when penalised, and then collared on the line by Ballyandy in the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock after looking all over the winner.
Trainer comments: Pentland Hills will have a racecourse gallop. You have probably read it in various places, but we have cauterised his palate since Haydock.
That is not because we have heard any noises and I doubt it will make any difference, but both times this season he has come there to win his race. I don't think he has done anything wrong really, maybe because it has been very bad ground both times, he just hasn't finished off as well as it looked like he was going to.
There can be what you call silent noises, where you don't hear anything, and this feels a little bit like that. Maybe he isn't getting enough [air] at the end, so it may help, but it may not. You could excuse his run at Cheltenham - it was first time out, bad ground, he came there to win his race and he didn't quite get up the hill first time out.
You have to say at Haydock, given he came there so easily, it was disappointing that he just got caught, but he still ran a very good race on horrible ground. He wants to switch off a bit more and I think we will drop him in more than we have done. The trouble is, is that he such a good jumper, he is taking you there the whole time.
Age: 8. Race: Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Cheltenham form: 1321
Overview: Has gone close at the past two Festivals in the Albert Bartlett and then RSA Chase (after an interrupted preparation). Scrambled home at Sandown on his comeback but back in the groove when beating Bristol De Mai in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham last month.
Trainer comments: We know Santini likes Cheltenham. His run in the RSA last year was fantastic because we'd had a terrible time with him. We had a problem with his feet and then there were the flu vaccines, which meant he missed the Reynoldstown. He had no prep and no experience, so his run was remarkable.
At least this time, we are coming in off a good prep. I admit he was not very impressive at Sandown first time out, which is why we cauterised him.
The Cotswold Chase was always where we were going to go after Sandown. He was very good there and I think it was a good race. I know Nige [Twiston-Davies] and Daryl [Jacob] felt Bristol de Mai was as good as they could have him. The ground was also more Bristol de Mai's ground than Santini's ground, but he still did it well. There should be lots of improvement from that.
Santini was the complete opposite of Altior when they were young. You knew from day one that Altior was a rocket, whereas the first year Santini was here, it was clear he was not a bumper horse, so I rang Richard [Kelvin-Hughes, owner] and Santini went down to Polly Gundry's where he hunted and ran in a point-to-point. It was just a better route into the game for him.
He is a very enthusiastic horse and loves his work. He needs a lot of work and the more you get into him, the better he is. He should be better horse this year because he is a lovely, big, old fashioned type of chaser in the right mould. He is hardy too.
Age: 6. Race: Sky bet Supreme Novice Hurdle.
Cheltenham form: --
Overview: Impressive winner of his sole bumper at Kempton and an 11-length winner of his past two starts over hurdles at Newbury and Huntingdon, having suffered an early fall at the former course on his jumping debut.
Trainer comments: I would like to think that Shishkin is one of our best chances of the week. He is a genuine two-miler. The Supreme is a nice race to win if you can because it gets the ball rolling and the pressure off a bit.
I think Shishkin is very good and in his bumper and novice hurdle, he has looked very efficient. He has got to prove himself yet and this will be a much bigger test, but visually he has been very impressive. He does not seem to lack experience, as he races very professionally, and then you can press a button [at the finish], which makes life easier for him.
Joe Donnelly [owner] has Shiskin and Asterion Forlonge. I was speaking to Joe before Asterion Forlonge won at Leopardstown and Joe said that Willie [Mullins, trainer] thought Asterion was a three-miler but he was running him over two. Willie said the same himself on the TV afterwards. Joe is perfectly happy to run both in the Supreme. I asked Joe if he wanted to split them up, as I wanted to push Willie to two and a half, but Joe said he would be delighted to finish first and second. I said as long as it's in the right order!
It will be the same story with some of the JP McManus horses. Obviously, Philip [Hobbs] has Sporting John and we have Chantry House, and I am sure JP has others. Chantry House is a very solid horse - he is lovely. He was very green at Cheltenham in December and then at Newbury last week he was foot perfect the whole way. He travelled like a good horse, jumped like a good horse, and went away from them like a good horse. The opposition were not that bad either.
I am pretty sure Shishkin will not be our only runner in the Supreme. Son Of Camas and Buzz are in the Dovecote on Saturday. Glynn certainly would want two and a half miles. I want to run Allart this week - I think he is quite good.
BEST OF THE REST:
Floressa is a definite for the Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle. She should have been second at Doncaster. I thought she ran a very good race and the winner [Lady Buttons] is a good mare. I think she has a great chance. Daphne Du Clos could run too, but she was not that impressive the other day and has a bit to do.
The Cashel Man will go for the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle. I think he will enjoy it and nice ground will be better for him. He did not like it much at Bangor the other day and now we have to go for an appeal to see if he can keep the race. It was a very good run before that behind Thyme Hill at Newbury.
Champagne Platinum has to creep in to the Northern Trust Company Novices' Handicap Chase. He may not get in and in that case, he will go for the Brown Advisory and Merriebelle Stable Plate. It obviously helped him going up in trip by half a mile the other day.
Welsh Saint and Diablo De Rouhet will go for the Pertemps Network Final. Diablo De Rouhet had a run over fences after he won over hurdles at Newbury, but he was so good in that hurdle race, I did not want to run him over hurdles as he did not need to go up in the weights. Welsh Saint needs to go up four or five pounds and his win at Haydock on Saturday was just the job. I think he would have a good chance.
Palladium and Fraser Island are my two for the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. I don't have anything for the JCB Triumph Hurdle. I knew early on that I did not have a star among the juveniles but, then again, neither did I this time last year - then Pentland Hills and Fusil Raffles came along. That won't happen again this year, I can assure you.
I suppose Theinval and Whatswrongwithyou will go for the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase. They are solid handicap chasers but somewhat exposed.
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