Henderson's Simonsig a class above
It is frightening to see a novice chaser as short as even-money in ante-post betting for Cheltenham before New Year's Day, and highly unusual to witness a top trainer such as Nicky Henderson running a Festival contender only six days after his previous outing at this stage of the season.
But Simonsig, the horse at the centre of both these novelty occurrences, might just be exceptional, which could help explain everything.
Yesterday, less than a week after he made a winning debut over fences at Ascot, he sauntered to a second chase success in the Wayward Lad Novices' Chase at Kempton Park, to become an even shorter favourite for the Arkle Trophy.
He had won by 49 lengths at Ascot; yesterday, the margin was a mere 35. This time, he defeated the useful four-year-old Hinterland, to whom he was conceding 11lb, and frankly he could not have been more impressive.
"He's very professional," a relieved Henderson said. "It was a brave shout and a very un-Henderson-like one to come here so soon after Ascot. He's settled down a bit – he had a race only six days go, after all – and Barry Geraghty said he was having a lovely time out there riding him.
"That's the first time he's run over two miles. Now I'd like to give him one more run before Cheltenham," the trainer added, though exactly what that target will be remains unknown and will be influenced to some extent by how stablemate Captain Conan performs in The Dipper Chase at Cheltenham on January 1.
Henderson enjoyed a highly successful two-day Kempton Festival, landing four races including the feature, the King George on St Stephen's Day with Long Run, and yet another with Simonsig. His only real disappointment was the poor run of Riverside Theatre in the King George on St Stephen's Day.
Paul Nicholls, who has been in the shadow of his main championship rival this week, saddled Sanctuaire to win the Desert Orchid Chase, which seemed almost as much of a surprise to the trainer as in-running punters, who had matched bets at 119/1 on Betfair when the six-year-old surrendered the lead before the home bend.
Sanctuaire, described by Nicholls as "quirky" and "a bit silly", had dropped himself out, only to come again over the last two fences and to register a 13-length victory for Ruby Walsh. The winner is 10/1 (from 16/1) with William Hill for the Champion Chase, with Sprinter Sacre the 2/5 favourite.
Diana Whateley's Menorah took the Peterborough Chase and jockey Richard Johnson is confident Menorah will get three miles in the long-term.
"I was trying to nurse him home without throwing too much at him," Johnson said. "He didn't like the ground, and he'll get a longer trip." (© Daily Telegraph, London)