Ahead of the Cheltenham Festival 2021, Nicky Henderson shares his thoughts on his runners including Champ and Santini for the Gold Cup, and Altior for the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Report by Nick Seddon and Ben Cox.
Nicky Henderson is confident that Champ has what it takes to win this year’s WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup, as the Seven Barrows maestro aims for a third victory in the Cheltenham Festival showpiece.
Henderson has won the Grade One contest twice before with Long Run (2011) and Bobs Worth (2013) and has the current second favourite for the race in Champ, who made a pleasing return in the Grade Two Betfair Game Spirit Chase over two miles at Newbury on Sunday 21st February.
The nine year old was dropped markedly back in trip for his first outing of the season and Henderson explained that such a move came more out of necessity than careful planning.
He said: “We had to do his wind and consequently that put us straight onto our back foot. He’s definitely better left-handed, so the King George isn’t the race for him, while we were never going to be ready for the Betfair as he was still recovering from his operation.
“The Cotswold was the alternative and we thought that was better for Santini, meaning Champ would’ve gone to the Denman Chase at Newbury. But the move back a week – as commendable as it was – just did interfere with plans.
“Champ was going to run in the Denman but it occurred to me that as Altior wasn’t running, and because we asked whether it was a good idea to go over three miles three weeks and five days before his objective, which puts you into the bounce factor bracket.
“He was going to get an easier race over two miles than three and with another week lost, we came up with this wacky idea to run him over two miles, which he’s never done before.
“He is an extraordinary horse – if you saw him at home a week before, he was working on our grass gallops with On The Blind Side. On The Blind Side has had a good season but is basically a three-mile hurdler who is not good enough to be entered in the Stayers’ Hurdle. It took Champ all day to get to him and my assistant Charlie Morlock said to me he didn’t look like a horse who would go over two miles. But Champ at home and Champ on a racecourse are completely different – you wouldn’t think they are the same horse. He does nothing at home but when he sets foot on a racecourse he sparks up.
“I was hoping we’d see what he saw, and my head was on the chopping block if this ridiculous idea didn’t work, but it worked because he could do it. His jumping at the fences were exceptional and we’ve all come away very happy.”
Looking back on Champ’s victory at the 2020 Festival in what is now the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase, Henderson said: “It was an extraordinary performance, almost reminiscent of dear old Might Bite. He was out of it and not going to feature, then from the second last to the last he was dropping back and it looked like he was going to finish a moderate third jumping the last.
“I was focusing on the leaders and all of a sudden Champ came back into sight and swept pass them. That proves one thing which is important – his stamina. That was his first and only try over three miles. The second thing which was interesting was that he faltered going to the second last.
“When he came back into training we loose-schooled him at Henrietta Knight’s and when he came back here we could definitely hear a noise which we had never heard before, which makes me wonder what happened to him last year at round about the second last.
“That is the point in the race where pressure is applied and if your breathing apparatus isn’t working as well as it should be – this is only a Henderson observance – but that could be what made him lose ground before he got his second wind and took off. So that is why we had to do his wind.”
Henderson is also responsible for last year’s runner-up, Santini, pictured top courtesy of Ian Yates www.eyewhy.co.uk.
The nine year old has been defeated on all three of his outings so far this season, though Henderson explained that he has been pleased with what he has seen during an interrupted campaign.
He said: “He’s had a difficult season, because he started off by going to Aintree where he ended up running in a Flat race, but actually he ran really well.
“It was the equivalent of a bending race at a pony club, and being near 17 hands and a very big horse, he ran a very good race at Aintree that day – in fact Frodon was behind him.
“We had no intention of running him in the King George as Kempton isn’t the track for him, but it just occurred to me that there was too much of a gap between the Aintree race and the Cotswold Chase, and he’s not a horse who sits still. Unsurprisingly he found the track sharper than ideal, but it was still a good exercise for him.
“He took on the Cotswold Chase at Sandown which was great, but the ground that day was testing. I can’t say I was thrilled but it was a good run and Aidan (Coleman) was able to look after him and he finished a good third without getting a desperately hard race.
“Hopefully that puts him where we want him and he seems in good shape. He was great in the Gold Cup last year and I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t do just as well.”
The presence of both Champ and Santini at Seven Barrows means there is something of a dilemma for Henderson’s number one jockey Nico de Boinville, but the trainer explained that there was more clarity on that situation after their two most recent starts.
He said: “There obviously was a method in Aidan riding Santini at Sandown, so both jockeys knew both horses. Nico will ride Champ and Aidan will ride Santini (at Cheltenham). Aidan’s had a good feel of Santini now, so there was no question from either side.
“I don’t (see their ability being too different). Champ was more eye-catching in that he was running over the wrong trip and travelled and jumped, but I’m very happy with Santini. It’s been a desperate winter with him but this is what he’s been waiting for and he’s in just the same shape as last year.”
Nicky Henderson is “very, very happy” with Altior (pictured above courtesy of Ian Yates) and the 11 year old will attempt to become just the second horse to win the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase three times on Wednesday 17th March, day two of The Festival™ supporting WellChild. The only previous triple winner was Badsworth Boy (1983, 1984, 1985).
A four-time Festival winner, having also taken the 2016 Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and 2017 Sporting Life Arke, Altior missed Cheltenham in 2020 with lameness and was beaten into second on his only start this season in the Grade Two Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton Park on 27th February.
Now he can write himself into the history books by becoming only the third horse – after Quevega (six) Golden Miller (five) – to win five Festival races or more.
Henderson said: “Altior could not be better and I’m very, very happy. His whole demeanour is in a better place than he has been this year.
“It hasn’t been easy and having looked invincible, luck hasn’t gone his way.
“He raced very lazily and lacked his usual and sharpness and accuracy at Kempton over Christmas. It was a pity Newbury had to go back a week and took us off our step a little bit. He takes his races quite hard and the feeling was that having closed it down to three weeks and two days, we were not going to run him in the Game Spirit.
“As it turned out, the ground was very good at Newbury and we probably could have done but it enabled to switch Champ and although it was quite an odd thing to do I am pleased it went that way.
“Altior went off with Mister Fisher and had a good gallop, jumping fences. They were both in good form and it all went very well. I am very happy with where Altior is. He will have one more bit of work here and is he is fit and seems very well. Chacun Pour Soi and plenty of others will be there but he is still there and will be sharper this time. There will be a battle and I am looking forward to it.
“One has to remember he is 11 now and is on 11 year old legs. He has done very little wrong. One or two things have conspired against and I have to go back to the race at Ascot last over 2m 5f on heavy ground against Cyrname.
“Actually I would have a pound that even Paul (Nicholls) is slightly regretting it too as I think it bottomed both horses – they have both struggled to get back from that race. I would have given all the tea in China not to have run that day but I couldn’t have taken him out as everybody had been waiting for this clash but we stupidly went for it as our first run of the season. It did neither of them any good and both horses were struggling after.
“But I am not struggling with Altior at the moment – he is good. It was a miracle when Sprinter Sacre came back and I don’t think you can hope for two miracles! If Altior won it would be very special. He has been a fantastic horse to have had.”
When asked if there was a chance of Altior wearing any headgear next month, Henderson replied: “I think it is something to be considered. It is something we have discussed. We have eliminated the Ryanair Chase as an option so we might look at something to try and sharpen him up over two miles.”
Nicky Henderson’s thoughts on his other runners are as follows:
Day One – Tuesday 16th March
Shishkin (Sporting Life Arkle Trophy)
(Pictured above, courtesy of Cheltenham Racecourse.)
“It’s amazing how this race has gone from about three or four weeks ago, when Shishkin was odds on and everyone saying it was going to be boring. All of a sudden Willie (Mullins) has come along with Energumene and that’s arrived on the scene and I think Allmankind was impressive again at Warwick. It was only three weeks ago it was boring, and now there’s a real fight on and people are seeing it as one of the big headline clashes of the week.
“I think Shishkin’s performance in the Supreme last year was pretty good because he did get literally taken into the car park at the second last, so to get back in and win was a solid performance. He probably hasn’t had a lot of opposition over fences, but he’s been very clinical and accurate and he’s done it well every time. He comes in having got ten ticks on all three occasions, even if he didn’t have to beat anything very sensational, and he’s had a good run in.
“He’s got a couple of bits of work I’d like to do with him beforehand this weekend and next, and I’d put him on a shortlist to go to Kempton (for a racecourse gallop) if we do that. He’ll have another school, but everything’s fairly on course at the moment.”
Ok Corral and Pym (Ultima Handicap Chase)
“The latest is that they are both Grand National bound, all going well. I need to get a run into Ok Corral very shortly. We’re going well now, he’s never been the easiest horse to train, and I’d prefer to have it before Cheltenham – so in both cases this is a back-up in case we haven’t had a run before that and this would be a last opportunity to run before the National. Pym is rated quite a lot lower over hurdles, so I’m quite tempted to come into the National on the back of a hurdle run.”
Dame De Compagnie, Floressa and Verdana Blue (Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle)
“We were a bit short of opportunities with Dame De Compagnie so we had to throw her into a Grade One (over fences), which was a bit of a baptism really. I think she’s very likely to come back for this, and she’s in very good form. The fall did her no harm, and I don’t see why she shouldn’t come back over hurdles. She showed in the Coral Cup that two and a half miles is her trip and I think it’s a good call. We can always go back over fences, and she’s not ready for the Mares’ Chase as yet. JP has the favourite for that (Elimay), so we’re just trying to split the troops.
“Floressa will also go for this. I’m pretty keen to run her and she’s always struck me as if an extra half a mile would help her. She’s been running very well in graded races at two miles, but we’ve always felt that two and a half would suit her.
“I think Verdana Blue has become more versatile than she used to be. She was very speedy and wanted fast ground, but I think funnily enough her Flat season last year told us that she’s staying better and coping with softer ground better – as she was a very close third in the Ebor on soft ground. So she might well be better going up to two and a half.”
Paros (Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle)
“He was very disappointing at Doncaster. That was left-handed, and he visited every pub, hotel and car park in Doncaster on his way round the other day and had no steering whatsoever, so I can’t see Cheltenham being the right place for him at the moment.”
Dickie Diver (National Hunt Chase, also in Brown Advistory Novices’ Chase)
“He’s never been an easy person, but he had one run over fences at Newbury and ran very well and jumped well. He really needs to back it up again and is in a few, but he might well get a run again before the Festival – and will probably need to.”
Day Two – Wednesday 17th March
Gallyhill (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle)
“I think he’s lovely, and he ran a very good race although he got defeated the other day. I’ve spoken to Mike Grech (owner) and we’ve discussed it, and I think Cheltenham is for another year for him. He belongs there and I hope his career will be around Cheltenham Festivals, but another year.”
Allart, Buzz, Craigneiche, Monte Cristo (Coral Cup)
“Allart had a fall at Haydock, which was very frustrating. He didn’t do a lot wrong, but on that very deep ground he overpitched. He would be interesting if he came in here, but we’re not having the cleanest time with him at the moment – so I’ll have to sit on the fence as far as his participation would be concerned.
“I would think there would be a definite possibility that Buzz could come into this. There was no doubt in the Betfair Hurdle that both of our horses – Buzz and Mr Coffey – found it too quick. I’ve always felt that Buzz races as if another half a mile would help him and I would think there’s every possibility he would come into this. If I run all 14 in here it would only leave room for another 10 to run! The ones I think are more likely to run here are Buzz, Craigneiche, and Monte Cristo.”
Theinval, Whatswrongwithyou and Mengli Khan (Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase)
“We’ve won it a couple of times and it’s obviously very special to me, but you can’t just pluck two-mile handicap chasers out – if you haven’t got one, you haven’t got one!
“Theinval has been third, fourth and fifth before and he’ll be in there again and is in good form. Whatswrongwithyou comes into this and has been knocking on the door in these competitive handicaps and he could run too. Mengli Khan is an entertaining character. I think there’s every chance he would run and he’s a two-miler. He likes to bowl along, but this would be fast and furious.”
Day Three – Thursday 18th March
Chantry House and Fusil Raffles (Marsh Novices’ Chase)
“I was very pleased with Chantry House at Wetherby the other day. He was very impressive first time out at Ascot, and if you go back last year he was a very good third in the Supreme, and we always felt he needed further. Ascot isn’t a place I would often choose for first time out novice chasers, but he was very good and won well.
“We then went to Cheltenham, and he was very disappointing and completely forgot his jumping. He had a bit of surgery on his back and he did really well because Wetherby was only eight weeks after we’d corrected his back, so that was a pretty quick turnaround. I thought he jumped beautifully and travelled very well on horrible ground. He stays, touch wood he jumps, and the only problem is Envoi Allen!
“I spoke to Anthony Bromley who manages Simon Munir and Isaac Souede’s horses, and he will go for the Marsh (with Fusil Raffles). I’ve always felt that two and a half was what he wanted, but he’s actually finished at two miles all the time and he has been a star this season, I must admit.
“It was only one start in very heavy ground at Cheltenham (that caught him out) and I’m absolutely certain he wants two and a half. You do have problems in doing that, as you bump into one of the Irish bankers of the week in Envoi Allen. He’s got to be taken on and I think with Chantry House and Fusil we’ve got two shots at him.”
Champagne Platinum (Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle)
“He found jumping fences quite hard last year, and we had to school, school and school. It was difficult, we just brought him back over hurdles for a couple of runs and he went to Haydock the other day for the last Pertemps qualifier. It was the last throw of the dice and he ran a very good race to finish second on very soft ground.
“He does go through flat spots, and I suspect cheekpieces might come back on for this. He did ok and finished well, so we’re thinking and hoping that Cheltenham will be a better track for him.”
Carribean Boy (Paddy Power Plate)
“This is definitely the objective for Carribean Boy. When he’s good, he’s very good, like he was first time out at Newbury. I think I made a couple of mistakes with him since. We ran him back too quickly after the Newbury race, where he was very impressive. If we can get back to the right trip on the right ground, and we see the horse from Newbury, we’re in with a good shout.”
Day Four – Friday 19th March
Heross Du Seuil (JCB Triumph Hurdle)
“He runs at Warwick tomorrow (Friday 26th February) and let’s see how things go. I love the horse and I thought he did well to win at Kempton first time out. He’s got to get more experience and he’s got to be impressive tomorrow, but you’ll never know. I’ve opted for the easier option at Warwick over the Adonis, so let’s wait and see.”
Bothwell Bridge (Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle)
“He could well run at Hereford on Sunday over three miles. We think that’s what he wants and he’d have to do something spectacular there but he’s very capable of it. I was very impressed with him the first time he ran, so he’ll be at Cheltenham one day for sure.”
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