Sport Horse Racing

Saturday 30 August 2014

Henderson will be counting days to March after sweet Christmas bonus

Ian McClean

Published 30/12/2012 | 05:00

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Nicky Henderson must have behaved impeccably during 2012 as, undoubtedly, a watchful Santa had more gifts in his sack for him than any other horseman this Christmas. It seems his rewards were almost unconditional as certain of his Seven Barrows team actually enhanced their reputations by their exploits on the track while others simply stayed at home to watch their Cheltenham Festival prospects grow.

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On that note, it seems grossly unjust that Long Run should have almost expired at the effort of heroically overhauling Captain Chris from the last after an excruciating three miles in the King George, and yet still have his price extended in some quarters for the Gold Cup for his pains. Meanwhile, Bobs Worth could remain safely tucked up in the warmth of his box and see his price for the same race contract directly after the Lexus. Life, however, was never meant to be fair.

The contrast, however, does enforce a recurrent theme this season: so unseasonably wet has it been in recent months that traditional prep races for the Cheltenham Festival might be sensibly eschewed by trainers between now and mid-March for fear of bottoming their horses prematurely.

So consequently, the Christmas period – traditionally the mid-term report for horses en route to the Festival – may be even more critical in our visual assessment of the protagonists than ever, given that we may see less of them in the next 12 weeks than we are wont to.

A measure of the ubiquity of rain is that this year's King George was the first since the inaugural running in 1937 to be conducted in conditions officially described as 'heavy'. Such conditions led to an inevitably attritional event where over half the field (five of the nine runners by my count) failed to give their true running. The admirable Long Run – now 14 wins from 24 starts – simply out-slogged his opponents.

Ironically, the King George will prove more a reference point for the Ryanair than the Gold Cup, with Riverside Theatre, Champion Court, Cue Card, Grands Crus and Captain Chris all more likely for the Thursday feature than Friday's.

The best you could say about Long Run's win would be to describe it as workmanlike, while his jumping, indifferent as it was all the way around, nearly cost him the prize outright at the last.

His best chance of regaining his Gold Cup crown would appear to rest with heavy conditions, something historically inconceivable by Friday at a super-drained headquarters. However, when before did Cheltenham have to inspect two days before their New Year's Day fixture for waterlogging?

The Lexus definitely qualifies as a candidate for best Grade One finish ever witnessed at Leopardstown. Indeed it totally encapsulates the essence of why people love jump racing. But instead of helping to crystallise the Gold Cup picture, it only served to muddy it. One sizzling question it did serve to answer, however, is that Flemenstar would only stay the Gold Cup trip in the back of the horsebox they travel him over in.

Notwithstanding that, Peter Casey's people's icon moved with his habitual menace, jumped with his usual aplomb and had his field roasted by the turn for home. However, he was already feeling the strain when putting in a tired short stride at the last. That he managed to cling on, to be beaten under a length at the finish, speaks for his tenacity. The Ryanair would appear the logical choice, but a showdown with Sprinter Sacre in soft ground over two miles in the Champion Chase would be a bigger draw than any Gold Cup field could hope to match.

Another which would benefit from a drenched Festival is the evergreen Tidal Bay. Immediately after switching to Paul Nicholls he spent last year in the relative wilderness (finished tailed-off last of five in the Aon Chase behind Long Run at Newbury in February) but culminated by landing some punt in the former Whitbread under 11-12.

The seemingly reformed character has since put in three top-class runs. Beginning with a Grade Two hurdle, he emerged the best horse at the weights in the Hennessy before passing three horses on the run-in to win the Lexus on Friday. First Lieutenant's run in second further bolsters the Hennessy form and only enhances the substance of Bobs

Worth which, in addition, is both unbeaten at Cheltenham and unbeaten racing right-handed over fences. Ironically, Tidal Bay might not even contest the Gold Cup with Ruby Walsh intimating in the absence of Big Buck's that he would love to ride him in the World Hurdle. After all, the Nicholls' camp already has Silvianaco Conti in abeyance for the Gold Cup.

From the perspective of the Gold Cup, the horse to take out of the Lexus is Sir Des Champs. Disappointing on the face of it, his jumping proved his Achilles heel in the race. He completely missed the first two on the Foxrock side on the second circuit, just as the tempo was increasing, and, having worked himself onto the heels of the leaders, put in a sluggish leap at the second last just when he needed the opposite. He stayed on almost as well as Tidal Bay to be beaten less than a length in the finish. Mindful that Sir Des Champs almost got beaten by Knockfierna at the same time of year in 2011, you can be pretty certain he will be a different proposition by March.

As well as delighting in the Gold Cup picture post-Christmas, Nicky Henderson can also celebrate the fact that Simonsig looks every bit as good over fences as he promised over hurdles. In spite of winning two uncompetitive small-field chases in the space of six days, his jumping looks very professional and assured and although his price of around even money for the Arkle is desperately skinny at this stage, you couldn't say with conviction that he wouldn't win it.

In a peculiar way, Sizing Europe's victory in the Dial-A-Bet was another decent result for Henderson, as, instead of consolidating the champion's position in opposition to Sprinter Sacre in the Queen Mother, it prompted Henry de Bromhead to look more closely at the Ryanair, as well as the Gold Cup.

The stable's River Maigue staked his claim for the Supreme Novice at Kempton on Stephen's Day, but it was Darlan which took the champion trainer most by surprise with the manner of his win in the Christmas Hurdle. On the evidence of what we witnessed, Darlan is a young horse on a steep upward trajectory and determining the pecking order with him amongst Grandouet, Oscar Whisky and Binocular will be a mid-winter pastime with which Henderson can look forward to enjoying hours of fun.

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