The Syndicate

Cheltenham 2019 Stable Tours: Nicky Henderson

| February 25, 2019 | Reply

Nicky Henderson with Champion Chase favourite Altior

It’s that time of year when those of us lucky enough get invited shoot off to various top National Hunt yards ahead of the Cheltenham Festival.

This week it was the turn of Nicky Henderson, Champion Trainer, and responsible for some of the best-known horses of the last few years, with Sprinter Sacre a personal favourite.

Naturally, others have rushed out their articles already, quoting verbatim the words of the man himself and barely stopping to catch breath, let alone attempt to read between the lines. In my case, my paymasters kindly allow me extra time to think about what was said and try to interpret the body language to see if I can gauge the horses he REALLY likes – sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I don’t, but if I don’t mention a few winners here I will be very surprised.

First things first and thanks to equine flu life was a little different this year – no touching the horses, no wandering around the yard, and just the two “superstars” brought out for photos, so apologies in advance, but I suspect my pictures will be the same as you have seen elsewhere!

Champion Hurdler Buveur D’Air was the first on show, and to my eyes he looked a picture as always. Nicky reports him to be in fine fettle and mentioned later that he felt he was well below his best when winning last year and may have even been under the weather. Next door neighbour We Have A Dream was running a temperature and there is a possibility that was the root of the problem but that is not the case this year and his trainer seemed pretty confident of another big (hopefully winning run), with his biggest challenge expected to come from Ireland.

If I tried to tip the heavily odds-on Altior for the Queen Mother Champion Chase I suspect I would be laughed out of town, but he was the other star we got to see in the flesh. He looked well if a little less pleased to see us (bored is probably a better word), but again Nicky seemed as confident as you can be in these races and reported his preparations had all gone according to plan, though that looks a race to watch as a racing fan more than as any sensible betting proposition.

Plenty of scribes appeared to stop listening about now but I have worked out that there are three groups of horses any trainer will talk to the media about – those he has to (see above), those he is asked about (in my view prompted), and those where he volunteers the information – those are the ones I invariably focus on and I have listed some of them for you below with their probable targets and my view of his confidence, or not.

Might Bite (Gold Cup): Bitterly disappointing to me and others last time out at Kempton in the King George on Boxing Day but he has had a soft palette operation since and worked very well last Saturday under Nico De Boinville. Second in the Gold Cup last year, he tanked along like the winner on the better strip of ground that day before hitting soft (and raced on) ground late on in the race which may well have been his undoing. Soft ground may well stop him again this year, but better going and there will be 20/1 shots with worse chances than his during the week.

Birchdale (Albert Bartlett): Personally, this was one of the horses I felt Nicky seemed keenest on, mentioning him regularly without being prompted. Two wins out of two over hurdles include a Grade Two at Cheltenham in January and he will step up in trip for the Albert Bartlett on the Friday afternoon. If I was allowed a NAP for the stable outside the obvious ones, I think he would be the one.

OK Corral (National Hunt Chase): Pretty hard to keep sound over the years (apparently) but looks to have got his act together now with wins at Plumpton and Warwick since being switched to fences. Stayed on well over three miles at Warwick last time and will now try the four at Cheltenham. He’s not absolutely 100% guaranteed to stay according to his trainer but will according to jockey Derek O’Connor and looks likely to outclass the opposition regardless.

Champ (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle): Obviously a very good horse with wins at Perth And Warwick last year and a two out of two record this winter including in the Grade One Challow Hurdle at Newbury last time out. Named after A P McCoy for owner J P McManus he would be a popular winner here and clearly has more than enough ability, but I didn’t pick up the confidence vibe as strongly as I hoped (though horses do make fools of us all).

Santini (RSA Chase) mentioned numerous times but not in a wholly positive way. Nicky seems to think he can win the RSA Chase as in has the ability, but he had hoped to get one more race in to him for the experience on his way to Cheltenham. As things stand equine flu ruined those plans and although there is no doubting his talent, I thought I heard slight warning signs and if I do back him, it will be to reduced stakes.

Conclusions:

Equine flu has undoubtedly thrown a spanner in the works at Seven Barrows with new vaccinations needed and the obligatory time off the track, as well as the cancellation of various prep races Nicky had planned for his charges.

Santini sounded as if he was the major sufferer as things stand, while Angels Breath is another who could do with more experience having only jumped the four hurdles in public when winning at Ascot but that is not to say they cannot be got to Cheltenham 100% and come away with their respective races.

Keeping the same staff to the same horses gives the boss a good barometer to each horse’s wellbeing and Nicky seemed happy enough that he will walk away from Cheltenham with a few winners as usual – it’s just a case of second-guessing which ones.

Sean Trivass

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