Matt Brocklebank rounds up all the latest news lines from Nicky Henderson's Seven Barrows yard ahead of the 2021 Cheltenham Festival.
No matter your own take on Altior’s chances of regaining the Queen Mother Champion Chase crown he wore with such distinction in 2018 and 2019 – and don’t pretend to be nonplussed – there’s little escaping the fact the man ultimately responsible for his bid for glory this March has retained every ounce of faith.
Nicholas John Henderson OBE, with 62 Cheltenham Festival winners to his name and a very long list of superb horses that have served him so well over the years, has just about seen it all in his illustrious career.
And it would appear, in spite of just one public appearance so far this season, when beaten quite convincingly by Nube Negra at Kempton over Christmas, Henderson has witnessed enough from Altior to give him genuine cause for optimism.
“He’s great, he couldn’t be better,” said the champion trainer who was speaking at a Cheltenham Festival press conference on Thursday. “Altior has been and had a big gallop, jumping fences with Mister Fisher, and it all went very well.
“I’m very happy where he is now, he’s fit and he seems very well.
“There’s Chacun Pour Soi and plenty of others, but he’s still there and he’ll be sharper this time.”
The old sharpness was not so evident in the Desert Orchid Chase when last we saw Altior, after which the trainer hinted the team may decide to apply some form of headgear for his next run. And when it was put to him that cheekpieces could do just the job on day two of the Festival next month, Henderson was hardly clean bowled by the suggestion.
“I think it would be considered,” he said.
“It’s something we have discussed already. We have eliminated the Ryanair (entry) so with that we might try and sharpen him up with it (headgear) over two miles.
“He’s on 11-year-old legs now and one or two things have conspired against him, including that race at Ascot last year over two miles and five (furlongs), against Cyrname, I shouldn’t have run him. I think Paul (Nicholls) would even say it’s bottomed both of them, it did neither of them any good really.
“But I’m looking forward to the battle.”
We’re all looking forward to the battle and we’ve been here before, of course, with star two-milers from Seven Barrows looking all but over the hill before roaring back to the pinnacle on this very stage.
“Sprinter Sacre (2016) was a miracle, an extraordinary scene and totally unforgettable,” said Henderson. “It wouldn’t be quite like that, but it would be very special.”
Altior isn’t the only one under consideration when it comes to a potential headgear boost at the Festival.
Champagne Platinum – chasing last season but back over hurdles this time around - is among the favourites for the Pertemps Final after a third at Newbury and a promising second in the Haydock qualifier just last weekend.
He went without headgear in the north west but had worn cheekpieces on his two previous starts and it was confirmed he is set to be declared with the sheepskin next month.
“He can go through flat spots and we found he was a bit keener in the cheekpieces so I suspect they might come back on for this. Cheltenham will be a better track for him than Haydock, anyway,” said the trainer.
Nicky Henderson won’t have a runner in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle this year (“I thought I had one or two but sadly I haven’t got one good enough”), meaning his first runner at the 2021 Festival will be Shishkin.
The winner of last year’s Supreme has an unblemished record after three outings over fences this season and has been a red-hot favourite for the Sporting Life Arkle since his first taste of action over fences. He was odds-on for the Arkle and effectively looked to have the race in safe keeping after Doncaster. That was, until the Dublin Racing Festival in early-February.
Henderson said: “It’s amazing how this race has gone from three or four weeks ago everyone was saying this was going to be boring, but all of a sudden Willie (Mullins) has come along with the unpronounceable Energumene, and I actually thought Allmankind was quite impressive when he won again too.
“There’s a real fight on now and people are seeing it as one of the headline clashes of the week."
Henderson has often spoken of the need to get one on the board early, to settle the nerves and get the week off to a decent footing. Shishkin won’t define the trainer’s week at this year’s Festival, but he’ll go a fair way to help shaping it. Just as he did last year.
But the race appears a whole lot more daunting than it had done pre-Christmas and, despite what Henderson feels, for that we should be grateful.
Henderson reckons Ryanair Chase hope Mister Fisher (14/1) may be the forgotten horse of the race and it’s hard to take the opposite view.
Like several other high-profile runners from the yard (Buveur D’Air, Epatante, Champ) he comes into the biggest week of the season following a quiet campaign in terms of starts and evidently put his comeback display – when pulled-up in the Paddy Power Gold Cup – well behind him when last sighted.
“He won the Peterborough Chase which was moved from Huntingdon to Cheltenham and he put up a first-class performance,” commented Henderson.
“He would want good ground. I know it’s soft-ish now but it’s amazing what a few dry days can do. The (water) table is high, yes, but if Mister Fisher gets some decent ground I think he’ll be competitive.
“He’s got a great attitude, has got the pace, he jumps and he stays. I’d be very hopeful he’ll be competitive."
Small tweaks to Epatante’s spine following her Christmas Hurdle defeat were not necessarily downplayed, but clearly weren’t top of Henderson’s wish list of things to talk about in the Champion Hurdle conversation.
After acknowledging that as a small excuse he was happy to suggest the horse was A1 again.
“Christmas just didn’t go her way, she wasn’t herself, but fair play to the winner Silver Streak, who was very good and set a proper test, and we were at no stage really in a position to have a crack at him,” said Henderson.
“We have a few things ironed out I hope because obviously she is better than that but Silver Streak was very good on the day and we weren’t - but I think we’re back in the right place now.”
The right place may also be a suitable comment in terms of tactics, with this year’s Unibet Champion Hurdle expected to be run at a serious pace thanks to Goshen, Not So Sleepy and the strong-travelling Epatante’s main market rival, Honeysuckle.
But that could also play to the strengths of former star Buveur D’Air, who the trainer believe is another from the yard being slightly overlooked.
“It did just find him out at Haydock a bit, I thought we were going to get there going to the last but he probably just emptied a bit and he was entitled to in that ground but it did him the world of good and he’s in good shape.
“I honestly think Buveur D’Air has been forgotten and he’s out with the washing at the moment, while Epatante is sharing favouritism with Honeysuckle and Goshen and it’s all going to be very competitive.”
To say the seeds were sown would be an understatement. Aidan Coleman rode Santini in the rescheduled Cotswold Chase at Sandown and Nico de Boinville rode Champ in the rescheduled Game Spirit Chase at Newbury.
And that is how they will remain in the - please-God-not-rescheduled - WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.
"I think it was difficult for Nico," Henderson said. "We agreed that Aidan would ride Santini at Sandown and Nico said sitting in the Weighing Room watching someone else ride him was horrendous. But he knew it was the right thing to do.
"It's only fair that he did have the option and JP (McManus, owner of Champ) was happy. Loyalties are very important but the decision had to be made and these decisions have arisen thousands of times over the years. Everybody is, I hope, quite relaxed about the situation.
"As for Santini, he's 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. 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.
“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."
But what of any concerns over a typically keen-going horse like Champ moving right up to the Gold Cup trip, having shown plenty of zest over two miles at Newbury?
“By running him over two miles, I suppose there is a question over whether I have woken him up too much," admitted the trainer. "We'll just have to see."
Safety in numbers is one thing, but it might not really matter how many bullets the home team fire at the Marsh Novices’ Chase on the Thursday of the Festival.
Fusil Raffles and Chantry House could represent team NJH in the race but, unlike the Gordon Elliott-trained Envoi Allen, they’ve not exactly been perfect over fences so far.
“I was very happy with Chantry House at Wetherby last time,” said Henderson. “And also his performance at Ascot first time out. Ascot isn’t a place I would often choose for first time out novice chasers but he was very good and he won well.
“Then we went to Cheltenham and he was disappointing, he completely forgot him jumping. He had a bit of surgery on his back (‘kissing spines’) and Wetherby was only actually eight weeks after we corrected his back and I thought he jumped and travelled beautifully.
“He stays, touch wood he now jumps, and nicer ground will help him.
“The problem? Envoi Allen.
“Going into the week he’ll be many people’s Irish banker. But I’m not just going to lie down and Fusil Raffles I adore, he’s a wonderful character of a horse and he’s done nothing wrong all season. He’s good fresh and he’s fit and well.
“In a normal year they’d be two good chances.”
Chopping and changing from fences to hurdles mid-season isn’t always the best policy, but Henderson has pulled off a few masterstrokes down the years and you only have to go back a few seasons for the best of the lot when Buveur D’Air won his first Champion Hurdle, having started the campaign over fences.
There’s nothing quite in that category but the move to switch Dame De Compagnie to the Grade One Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle after unseating in the Grade One Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase looks a wise piece of business, while Allart could be another going a similar way, providing he starts to show the right signs in the next couple of weeks.
“Allart had a fall at Haydock which was very frustrating as he didn’t do a whole lot wrong,” said Henderson. “He would be interesting if he came in here (for the Coral Cup), but we’re not having the cleanest time with him at the moment.
"I’ll have to sit on the fence as far as his participation is concerned.”
Watch this space.
The newly-backed Paddy Power Festival Plate has been kind to Henderson over the years and he has no fewer than 10 entries as he looks for a record fifth success in the race - Bobby Renton and Martin Pipe also won it four times.
But despite the mass representation at this stage, the focus is very much on one horse in particular.
“That is definitely the objective for Caribean Boy. And when he’s good, he’s very good, like first time out at Newbury.
“I think I’ve made a couple of mistakes with him since. We ran him back too quickly at Ascot after the Newbury race where he was very impressive. Then I ran him back over two miles at Sandown on heavy ground and he wasn’t madly in love with that.
“So we go back to the right trip on the right ground and if we see the horse from Newbury then we’re in with a good shout.”
Cheltenham pointers are no longer coming thick and fast, but there’s always time for something to join the party late in the day and Henderson has previous with the likes of Pentland Hills, who landed a Plumpton maiden (on this very day) before winning the JCB Triumph Hurdle three weeks later.
Look out for Dickie Diver in the coming days. He has no entries pre-Cheltenham at the time of writing but is reportedly in need of a run ahead of a tilt at the National Hunt Chase, though Henderson admitted he was no longer under any pressure to have Derek O’Connor available for the prep given he won’t be riding at the Festival.
Promising juvenile Heross Du Seuil might be the one to try and follow the Pentland Hills route, having been declared for Warwick on Friday.
Expectations would appear to be quite high, Henderson saying: “He’s been around the country a bit but only run once as they’ve been called off. He was in the Adonis (Kempton, Saturday) but I’ve opted for the easier option at Warwick.
“Let’s wait and see, but I love him.”
Knowing well in advance what isn’t an intended runner at Cheltenham is obviously equally as important as knowing what is. While it’s always worth acknowledging the fact that until she’s scratched there’s still a small chance of a rethink, the feeling is that Marie’s Rock – a general 25/1 chance antepost - won’t be representing Henderson in the County Hurdle.
Why she was entered in the race earlier this week might be a reasonable question and presumably it’s there as back-up in case the mare suddenly sprouts wings on the gallops, but Henderson admits she has been a real source of frustration this year.
“She has got to learn to settle. She is a lovely mare and we’re in the process of teaching her to relax and drop her head. I don’t know why she’s so keen but something is hurting her.
“You can’t do what she did in the Gerry Feilden and at Doncaster, where she was far too keen, you just can’t race like that as you’re never going to get home. She won’t be on board at the Festival but we hope to see her somewhere else as she’s very talented.”
Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle entrant Gallyhill is another on the unlikely list this year, though “his career will hopefully be around Cheltenham Festivals as he’s that type of horse”, while the EBF Final at Sandown “is probably the race for Captain Morgs”.