Champ in full flow at Cheltenham

Champ and Santini set for WellChild Cheltenahm Gold Cup

Nicky Henderson is glad his “ridiculous” idea of running Champ over two miles as a prep for the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup did not leave him with egg on his face.

Having had an interrupted season and his intended reappearance in the Denman Chase postponed by the weather, Henderson came up with the plan of running last year’s dramatic RSA winner over the minimum trip in the Game Spirit, once Altior had been ruled out.

Always prominent under Nico de Boinville, Champ exceeded nearly all expectations in finishing second to Sceau Royal and connections are now dreaming of winning the big one.

“It was an extraordinary performance in the RSA last year, reminiscent of dear old Might Bite,” said Henderson.

“I was watching what was going on up front, but then he came back into sight and swept by them. That proved one thing – his stamina.

“When we brought him in earlier this season, he was loose-schooling at Henrietta Knight’s and we could hear a noise we’d never heard before. It makes me wonder whether it had anything to do with what happened last year. Round about the second-last is where it could catch you out. It’s just a Henderson theory.”

After a wind operation, Henderson went about planning the second half of the season for Champ.

“The Cotswold Chase was his alternative, but we thought that was better for Santini, certainly in that (soft) ground, then Champ would have come in for the Denman at Newbury – on the original weekend,” he said.

Ben Linfoot ranked the weekend performances of the big names in order of significance, from Champ to Cyrname

“The move back a week, as commendable as it was, just interfered with plans and we decided against Altior running. Sometimes crazy ideas come into your head in the middle of the night and it occurred to me that three miles, first time out, three weeks and five days before his objective, put him in the ‘bounce factor’ bracket.

“He’s an extraordinary horse because a week before the race he was working with On The Blind Side, a three-mile hurdler who isn’t good enough for the Stayers’ Hurdle. He’s not a good work horse, but it took Champ all day to get to him.

“My assistant, Charlie Morlock, said he didn’t exactly look like a horse to run over two miles, but Champ at home and Champ on a racecourse – you wouldn’t know it was the same horse as he does nothing at home.

“I was hoping we’d see what we saw as my head was on the chopping block for this ridiculous idea if it didn’t work. It worked because he could do it, but I didn’t know where he’d finish. It went well and his jumping at that pace was exceptional. We all came away very happy and he has been fine since.”

Henderson confirmed De Boinville will stay on Champ for the Gold Cup, with Aidan Coleman riding last year’s runner-up Santini.

“Santini has had a difficult season. He started at Aintree when it was essentially a Flat race when they took the fences out. He’s a huge horse, he ran a very good race that day and in fact Frodon was behind him,” he said.

“We had no intention of running him in the King George, but there was just too much of a gap between Aintree and the Cotswold. He’s not a horse that sits still, he loves racing.

“Not surprisingly he found the track sharper than ideal, but it was still a good exercise for him. Then the Cotswold Chase was off, Sandown took it on but the ground was desperate. I was satisfied with him in third.”

While Champ is a much shorter price for Cheltenham, Henderson feels Santini may be going in under the radar if the ground is on the good side.

He said: “Champ’s run was obviously more eyecatching as he was running over the wrong trip. I’m very happy with Santini as it’s been a difficult winter with him. It’s not as if he’s coming in off three wins, but this is what he’s been waiting for.”

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