Now that the mud has settled on Cheltenham Trials Day, our Head of Racing, Ed Guiver, shares his thoughts on Nicky Henderson’s multiple chances at the Festival in March. We have boosted him to be Festival Top Trainer to 4/1.
Whenever I think about Cheltenham, my mind always wanders towards how many winners the great Nicky Henderson might have at this year’s Festival. On the surface, all seems rosy at Seven Barrows, as it should be for a man who has trained a total of 64 Festival winners and was joint Top Festival Trainer last year. Not to mention, we also have him currently priced up at 1/2 for this season’s Champion Trainer. With a fresh New Year’s Eve OBE to his name, every box appears to be ticked, as he to bids for another prosperous Festival.
At a quick glance, he has a massive seven favourites in the betting. With only 28 races, you don’t need to be a mathematician to know that’s 25%. Ok, that figure does include Altior, who isn’t technically favourite, but we like to think of him as much in our hearts. However, on a second inspection, I believe a few cracks start to appear in his arsenal. I’m going to run through a few particular horses in his stable and mull over why it wouldn’t be the worst idea to at least consider taking them on.
The first race of the meeting sees Henderson’s Shiskin in the Supreme Hurdle, under the same silks as the Gold Cup favourite, Al Boum Photo. Despite being an impressive winner at Newbury last time, he tends to race very freely and is still extremely inexperienced. He brings back memories of last year’s flop, Angel’s Breath, who is also trained by Nicky Henderson.
The Champion Hurdle is Nicky’s bread and butter, having won the race a record seven times. His old champion Buveur D’Air may be out of the picture but he is still doubly represented by one and two in the betting: Epatante and Pentland Hills. The former flopped at the course last year and, in my opinion, needs a flat track. The latter has not been finishing out his races this season and is still only a five-year-old. Despite last year’s winner Espoir D’Allen also being five, horses of this age have historically struggled.
The well-named Champ runs in the RSA Chase on Wednesday and also heads the betting. His second in last year’s Ballymore has hardly worked out well. He looked a very difficult ride at Newbury earlier in the season and fell last time out at Cheltenham. Not ideal preparation.
Henderson’s most famous horse, Altior, has had somewhat of a fall in the eyes of the public since his well-beaten second to Cyrname. He has, of course, won four times at the Festival and his claims are there for everyone to see. However, I can’t help the feeling that he isn’t quite the same horse as he was last year. He looked laboured on his only run this season at Ascot and has been a non-runner a few times since. Nicky, more than anyone, knows how to get them right, but two miles in the Queen Mother Champion Chase looks on the sharp side for him these days.
In the Mares Novices’ Hurdle on Thursday, Marie’s Rock will attempt to go where Epatante failed by winning this race. Her form is solid and she has done everything very well to date. That said, Willie Mullins, who has 65 Festival winners, has taken this race all four years. Put simply, Nicky’s mare looks a short enough price based on her limited but successful achievements.
Last year’s Top Cheltenham Trainer award came down to the biggest race of the Festival, the Gold Cup. In the end, Mullins had the last laugh with Al Boum Photo, his third choice in the race! Should the same scenario unravel, Nicky will be relying on his sole entry Santini to bring home the goods. Having just seen him win last weekend’s Cotswold Chase, he has immediately shot up the market into second favourite for the big race. Not to dampen excitement but in my eyes, he looks an out and out stayer. In order to trouble the main contenders, he would need bottomless ground. Time will tell, but I suspect he may be more of a Grand National horse in years to come.
These are just a few of my gut feelings and I am very much in this game to be proved wrong. Putting my money where my mouth is, we are going to go 4/1 for Nicky Henderson to be Top Trainer at the Festival! As you can see, he certainly has loads of chances, including plenty I haven’t even mentioned, so it should be a fun bet for those interested.