Despite looking likely to concede his Trainer’s title to Paul Nicholls this season, Seven Barrows master Nicky Henderson still has as strong a team as ever to go to War with at the Cheltenham Festival, starting tomorrow.
Notable absentees this year though include the highest rated chaser in training Sprinter Sacre, who will not be here to retain his Champion Chase crown, while last year’s Arkle winner Simonsig was ruled out very early into the season.
The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the regular Festival showcase sees two runners from the yard. Henderson has had plenty a good horse beat in the race with Sprinter Sacre, Spirit Son, Darlan and My Tent Or Yours all finding one or two too good. Vaniteux and Josses Hill are this year’s representatives.
Speaking at the Official Preview Night at the Racecourse on Sunday, Henderson said: “Josses Hill has done little wrong, he’s been ticking away and has actually bloomed the last fortnight. Vaniteux wasn’t down to run at Cheltenham but is working so well that we feel he deserves his chance.
“Finishing in the places in the Supreme is not a bad place to be. We’ve had Darlan, My Tent Or Yours and Sprinter Sacre all placed and they’ve ended up being the star horse.”
Grandouet is Henderson’s sole representative in the Arkle and the Grade 2 winning hurdler has still in fact yet to break his maiden over fences.
Henderson noted: “He’s as near as a Champion Hurdle horse as you like. Hinterland is probably his marker considering they fought out the finish at Sandown and it says a lot that Paul Nicholls goes to the Champion Chase with him.”
“You can forget his last run at Kempton, he never leads at home and simply hated it. He could finish up as a maiden this term, almost like Hinterland last season. He’s talented without doubt but he needs more than that to challenge for an Arkle.”
The feature of Day 1 and arguably the whole Festival is the Champion Hurdle, in which despite a small blip last week, Henderson runs Christmas Hurdle and Fighting Fifth winner My Tent Or Yours.
“My Tent Or Yours can be keen so we need early pace and that may not be necessarily guaranteed though having Captain Cee Bee hopefully means they don’t crawl the first mile.
“The a/w bumper win at Kempton took the fizz out of him thankfully. He missed one day last week but went swimming the other day and was like a torpedo. I was really impressed by the way he moved and worked on Friday in particular, so touch wood we’re on course.”
Royal Boy is Neptune bound after his battling success over stablemate Josses Hill in the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown. Henderson also plans to run outsiders Cocktails At Dawn and Cup Final.
Henderson said: “Royal Boy won over 2m6f at Ascot. He won the Tolworth, beating Josses Hill and if he’s good enough to be thought of as a Supreme horse then surely he should be contemplated for the Neptune?
“We plan to also run Cocktails At Dawn in the race. He needs improvement but he’s a good horse. Cup Final could take his chance too, there’s no point losing his Novice status in a Mickey Mouse race when he can run here and have him a Novice for next year.”
The lack of Sprinter Sacre is a big loss to this year’s Festival but Seven Barrows still has Captain Conan and Kid Cassidy to run in this season’s weak renewal, which sees Gary Moore’s Sire De Grugy as favourite.
“We have Captain Conan and Kid Cassidy for the race. Kid Cassidy beat Sire De Grugy obviously at Cheltenham albeit in receipt of 10lb and AP gave him a wonderful ride that day. He’s got ability but everything needs to go his way.
“Captain Conan has always been thought of as very smart. He travelled really well in the Tingle Creek, his only run so far this season and there’s enough reasons to suggest he didn’t finish the race as well as he could. I have got a lot of faith in him.
He added: “We’re obviously missing Sprinter Sacre in the race this year and we hope to have him back for next season. Even at the end of last season though Sire De Grugy looked the biggest challenger to him and he’s entitled to be favourite this time as he’s done nothing wrong.”
Oscar Whisky is on course to run in the JLT Novices’ Chase on Thursday, which he is a general 6/1 chance for.
“Oscar Whisky has not had his trip and finally gets it over fences. He has good form with one or two of these, mainly Taquin De Seuil and Wonderful Charm, and I think the winner will be one of those three, the latter I’m particularly wary of.
“You can totally forget the Sandown run as it was trainer error. I left him way short and Barry said he took in two big gulps even before reaching the fourth fence. He has his ground too so we’re as confident as we can be.”
The Cheltenham Gold Cup is seen by many as the feature of the whole National Hunt season and Bobs Worth is on course to defend his title. The gelding bounced back last time at Leopardstown in the Lexus after a poor run in the Betfair Chase at Haydock on his return.
Henderson said: “It’s the pinnacle of the chasing world. Bobs Worth obviously loves Cheltenham, winning here the last three years. I hate the Betfair Chase nowadays as we always seem to get stuffed in it and Haydock is a totally different track to what it used to be.
“We didn’t go to Leopardstown with that much confidence but the ground was a little better than hoped and he did well to win. When he puts his head down he will gallop and put all his heart in it for you. It’s because he puts so much effort in his races that he doesn’t run more times than we’d like and the same reason why he doesn’t show flashes of brilliance at home.”
“The last three weeks he’s been pretty good, his schooling has been the best I’ve ever seen him do and the ground will be a real positive for him too in the state it’s in.”
Friday’s opening race is the Triumph hurdle and both Kentucky Hyden and Royal Irish Hussar are expected to run.
Henderson confirmed: “We are likely to run both but they want differing ground. Kentucky Hyden was my best chance three weeks ago. He’s run well twice behind Le Rocher and simply loves heavy ground. With it drying it now though, Royal Irish Hussar comes into it. He’s a beautifully bred flat horse, has a big engine and would be competitive.”
One of the real enigmas of Cheltenham are the brutally competitive handicaps and despite a potential lack of well handicapped runners this year for Henderson, he still earmarked a few to keep an eye on this week.
He noted “I did originally like Whisper in the Coral Cup but he’s off 151 now and that could be too high. Dawalan has a good chance in the Fred Winter but Mr Nicholls has said his Katgary could be the good thing of the race so that’s scuppered that.
“Ericht in the Rewards4Racing and Full Shift in the Martin Pipe are two worthy of a mention. We may have a few top weights and not many that are truly well handicapped.
“Rajdhani Express and Hunt Ball could either run in the Byrne Group Plate off top weight or we may chance them in the Ryanair instead. Weirdly they may have a better chance in the latter.”