Matt Brocklebank reflects on a couple of talking points following his visit to Nicky Henderson's Seven Barrows stables in the run-up to the 2018 Cheltenham Festival.
No news is good news
When you come away from Nicky Henderson’s immaculate Seven Barrows stables three weeks from the start of the Cheltenham Festival and the main news lines involve Santini being confirmed as an intended runner in the Albert Bartlett and Terrefort needing soft ground if he’s to appear at all, then you know things are all pretty rosy with team Henderson.
And what a team it is shaping up to be in 2018.
Not only does the champion trainer – and all-time winning-most Festival trainer (58) – have the favourites for the Unibet Champion Hurdle, Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase and Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup in Buveur D’Air, Altior and Might Bite, he also has an outside squeak of the championship-race clean sweep with the enigma that is L’Ami Serge.
"There’s a lot of depth in there," he offers in an understated manner.
"Our novice chasers aren’t as strong as they have been in some recent years but there’s two or three I like the look of.
"Novice hurdlers – quite good. Though it all depends how good this unbeatable Crow (Samcro) is.
"The two juveniles (Apple's Shakira and We Have A Dream) look good but they don't show me a mass amount at home. Apple's Shakira shows us nothing, she'd look completely useless on her homework, but does come alive on the course."
He's not wrong, the two juveniles do look good. And their respective leading owners have very eyecatching records in the race.
Apple's Shakira is owned by JP McManus, who is going for a hat-trick of Triumph wins following successive victories courtesy of Ivanovich Gorbatov and Defi Du Seuil.
Those wins had been coming, too, with JP's Hargam and Franchoek hitting the frame in the juvenile championship within the past 10 seasons.
But We Have A Dream's owners, Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, arguably have an even healthier record in the race.
Soldatino was their first to reach the Triumph places when winning in 2010, since when they've had Grandouet in third (2011), Kentucky Hyden second in 2014, Peace And Co beating Top Notch for a one-two in 2015, and Footpad third a couple of years ago.
There's a suspicion that the Irish challenge on the Triumph this year is quite strong, but it looks like it's going to have to be.
Strongest ever Cheltenham team?
There was no mention of several horses that would be leading lights in any other yard.
Take Coral Cup jolly William Henry. Nothing. Lazy journalism? Perhaps. But hand on heart, there just wasn't the opportunity to cover all bases.
Which is in itself another serious indicator as to the depth of the Henderson squad.
"I read the other day that in one year I was with Fred (Winter) we had the three favourites. And guess what happened...
"The Dikler beat Pendil, Ink Slinger beat Crisp and Comedy Of Errors beat Bula. Or Lazarote. No, Bula. Was it Lanzarote?
"Come on you anoraks, you’re meant to know these things!"
Visiting Nicky Henderson is never dull.
"But I'm a lucky boy. I'm lucky these horses have come along at the same time and I think good horses help other good horses develop. They raise the standard all the way through. It can have a knock-on effect."
The Irish challenge
"I was half hoping Willie (Mullins) would come over for the Aintree weights but he didn't in the end, though he's never going to say a great deal. He wouldn't tell me if Faugheen coughed 15 times last Thursday or anything, and I suspect he wouldn't tell you either.
"But we'll just have to see if he or Douvan and all the others turn up and see how things unfold on the day.
"What they do have, Willie and Gordon (Elliott), is that together they form a bloody strong team. And Jessie (Harrington) too. So it's not going to be easy."
Henderson has every right to be feeling the pressure of effectively carrying the home team this year, which hasn't necessarily been the case in seasons gone by, but he hardly cuts the figure of a stressful man.
"It's a nice position to be in," he says honestly.
"If I wasn't under pressure then it'd mean you guys wouldn't be hear in the first place and I'd be sitting on the sofa watching the Winter Olympics!"
Some Divine intervention please
It seems there is no such thing as a Henderson dark horse. He just doesn’t really do them. Or does he?
"If I did know of one I’m pretty sure I’d get killed for telling you."
He went on to jest that Altior would be too high in the weights for the Grand Annual and pointed out the blindingly obvious claims of his principal hope for the race, last year's third Theinval (off the same mark), but there were a couple of lines that did eventually strike a chord.
"Look, we can’t go through the whole lot.
"But those two in the Close Brothers Novices’ Chase – Divine Spear and Rather Be – would have nice chances.
"And Kayf Grace is a very nice mare and she looked to hate the ground in the Betfair Hurdle. We might look to go up in trip with her and she'll love the chance to race on better ground."
Divine Spear is an interesting prospect for the final race on the opening day of the Festival. He was no star over hurdles last season but looked like he could take quite high rank among Henderson's 'moderate' novice chasers after making it 2-2 when winning at Ascot in December.
He's not the only Henderson hope to have come unstuck at Musselburgh last time out - for other examples see Sky Bet Supreme contender Claimantakinforgan and Albert Bartlett third-string Mr Whipped - and the run can probably be excused.
The 'Close Brothers' is a race Henderson has done well in over the years, winning the equivalent contest with Rajdhani Express in 2013 and saddling the second last year in Gold Present.
Divine Spear has been dropped 2lb from 143 to 141 for that last run, when far from disgraced in second giving the winner weight and effectively a head-start, and if there is one lurking in the shadows then perhaps it is the Middleham Park-owned seven-year-old.
In a nutshell
Festival banker - ALTIOR, Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
Best long-term prospect - SANTINI, Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle
Dark horse - DIVINE SPEAR, Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase