Ben Linfoot looks at Nicky Henderson’s surprising decision to drop Champ in trip in the Betfair Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on Sunday.
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Who would have thought it, eh? No Altior in the rearranged Betfair Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on Sunday, but Nicky Henderson throws in a Champ-shaped curveball to make the most surprising of headlines. Not even Joss Stone being eaten by a bunch of seagulls can top this.
At first it seems like madness, doesn’t it? Our last vision of Champ is one of him rallying from a seriously unpromising position to win the-then-RSA-now-Brown-Advisory-registered-as-Broadway Chase at Cheltenham last March.
That was a crazy win, even more ridiculous than I remember it when I watched the replay. Six lengths adrift jumping the last, he was plodding and looking vulnerable in third with the hill to climb when suddenly he was galvanised to an extraordinary late thrust between rivals by Barry Geraghty.
Over three miles.
Since then Geraghty has retired and you’d be forgiven for thinking Champ had too, as we haven’t seen him since. He had a hobday operation to help his breathing in pre-season with Henderson opining that his wind might’ve been the reason for him losing his pitch in the RSA so drastically.
And then there have been more headlines.
‘Champ misses Savills Chase’
‘Champ misses Cotswold Chase’
‘Champ has bizarre racecourse gallop’
That last story had Henderson purring about how a three-mile racecourse gallop, involving eight fences on the first circuit, relay tactics and a thorough workout without jumping on the second circuit, had really lit up his nine-year-old ahead of what was his scheduled comeback in the Betfair Denman Chase.
Over three miles.
But since the Newbury meeting was delayed by eight days due to the cold snap, we are edging closer to the Festival and Champ’s date with destiny in the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup. Hence the Henderson rethink, which he and jockey Nico De Boinville explain below…
Trainer, Nicky Henderson:
“We have decided to change things around with Champ, very much for the same reason and our close proximity to the Festival. He will now drop back down to two miles and contest the Game Spirit instead of the Denman. He hasn’t run for a year, so we could be in danger that three miles may be slightly too far for his first run of the season.
“He is a fresh horse and can be quite free in his races, so it would be harder to curtail enthusiasm and you’re never going to take as much out over two miles as you are over three. He could be keen and do too much, so, in the interest of the Gold Cup being his ultimate goal, it is preferable to run over a shorter distance, which could stop him having a harder race than necessary and also help eliminate the risk of the bounce factor.
“He was a very useful horse over two and a half miles last season and I think that the Game Spirit could suit him well, both in the short term and the long term.”
Jockey, Nico De Boinville:
Has he got the pace for two miles?
“I hope so. I thought it was a good idea at the time and I’m sure we’ll find out on Sunday. He’s been doing everything right and fingers crossed this is a stepping stone.”
On recent away day gallop…
“It was just getting him to a place where he can go and have a run and hopefully you’re avoiding the bounce factor after something like that. Let’s see what happens.”
It all sounds very positive, particularly from Henderson who made reference to Champ’s two and a half mile form at Newbury as a key reason as to why he was happy with the switch.
There is no doubt he has shown he has gears at this track in the past, particularly his Challow Novices’ Hurdle win in the December of 2018. He cruised through that Grade One contest like a horse that could’ve dropped in trip for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ at the time, although he was pointed at the Ballymore over 2m5f that season - where he was second to City Island.
His stamina has become more and more of an obvious trait as he has got older, though, as befitting his pedigree.
China Sky, his dam, is a half-sister to triple Gold Cup winner Best Mate, while his sire, King’s Theatre, is well known for producing stayers – even his Grade One winners over two miles like Menorah and Cue Card were to become much more famous for their exploits once stepped up in trip.
When Champ won the Grade 2 Berkshire Novices’ Chase over 2m4f at Newbury, again, in his first season over fences, he was continuing a fine tradition of quality staying chasers, like Bobs Worth, Coneygree and Clan Des Obeaux, using the contest as a stepping stone.
You might remember that race for the late drama, when Geraghty narrowly avoided the dividing rail at the elbow, but he won despite that adversity thanks to a strong finishing effort and very little about his novice chasing season suggested that he’d be worth dropping in trip to two.
On a bumper weekend packed with quality races it’s Champ’s reappearance in the Game Spirit that provokes more intrigue than most.
Timeform have him 4lb clear on their ratings and it’s not difficult to argue he’s the best horse in the race, without considering the distance, and he’s certainly the one with the most potential.
With that in mind he might well get away with dropping in trip against this opposition, but if he is to win I’d expect it will be by making it a test of stamina from the front and that’s simply not been his style.
In fact, there isn’t much in the way of early pace in the line-up and, with his odds in mind, a best of 9/4, he’s not on the radar for a bet with the feeling being he’s just not going to have the guns to cope with one or more of the bona fide two-milers in the race, like Greaneteen or Sceau Royal.
I can’t wait to watch him, though, his presence should make for captivating viewing, and those headlines should be interesting afterwards, whether they are hailing a potential Champion Chaser or the unconventional prep of a possible Cheltenham Gold Cup winner.