Cheekpieces on menu for Zaynar after shock defeat: Henderson
FOR a few seconds after the runners had passed the post, Nicky Henderson stared blankly down at the muddy Kelso track, deaf to the excited conversations beginning all around him.
Then he turned, looked expressively at Zaynar's stunned owners, and descended to the unsaddling enclosure. It had seemed a quaint project beforehand, but hardly a menacing one. How pleasant, to watch the Smurfit Champion Hurdle favourite from the balcony of a Georgian grandstand, against a swaying backdrop of Border hill country.
Only three other horses dared to take on the 1/14 favourite for the Morebattle Hurdle, and two were dismissed at 50/1 and 100/1. Victor Chandler, one of Zaynar's owners, had even sponsored the race.
But Henderson had watched the preceding races with some disquiet, noting the exhaustion infecting almost all the finishers. And then Quwetwo, harried by one of the outsiders, set off so fast that Barry Geraghty, having his first ride here, afterwards admitted Zaynar was struggling for air even in the back straight.
Off the bridle on the turn, the favourite never looked like getting past his giant rival and there was still a length in it at the end of what is an exorbitantly long run-in.
Henderson found Graham Wylie, Quwetwo's owner, and shook his hand. Wylie apologised for his horse's unexpected success. "These things happen," Henderson replied. "But he's too big; it's not fair!"
Having been obliged to bring Binocular's season to a premature end the previous day, Henderson has had a vexing week with his top hurdlers. All things considered, he was bearing himself with commendable fortitude.
"You'll probably be surprised to hear me say that I'm pleased I brought him here," he said. "If it had been off, I had decided he would go straight to Cheltenham and it turns out he needed that quite badly. He has a real good blow. They set off to find him out, and they have.
"The winner's a great big horse who was ploughing a furrow. Ours is not the biggest; he's a slick mover, and he'd never experienced ground like that.
"It's obviously disappointing, we would have wanted to go to Cheltenham with his record intact, but this isn't March 16. We've just got to be grown-up about it."
Henderson confirmed that Zaynar would be fitted with cheekpieces in the Champion, for the first time since he won the JCB Triumph Hurdle at last year's Cheltenham Festival.
"That has always been the plan for when he went back to two miles," he said. "But they would have made absolutely no difference today."
The winner has no festival entries but is going to make some chaser next season. Trained in Northumberland by Howard Johnson, he was the first winner of the day trained south of the border -- but at least he had a local rider in Wilson Renwick.
The most remote racecourse in Britian is also among those closest to the hearts of its patrons, with a members' bar dignified by elaborate cornicing and an open fire.
Henderson himself could probably have done with a malt or two after the big race, but he spends every February on the wagon.
Henderson's Champion Hurdle headache will continue into tomorrow with Punjabi's preparation at the mercy of the weather.
He plans to send reigning champion hurdler Punjabi to Wincanton tomorrow for the Kingwell Hurdle, where Felix de Giles is pencilled in to ride; but the Somerset track is battling with the wet weather and has a 1.0 inspection planned for today. If the meeting is abandoned, the British Horseracing Authority may be able to move the final major trial to Ascot.
Popular veteran Monet's Garden is among a field of six declared for the Betfair Ascot Chase at that meeting. The Nicky Richards-trained grey took this prize in 2007 and was runner-up to Kauto Star 12 months later.
Albertas Run -- which had Monet's Garden back in sixth when successful at Ascot in November -- represents Jonjo O'Neill. Planet Of Sound was second that day and Philip Hobbs' charge bids to reverse the placings.
Alan King's Oh Crick, the Paul Nicholls-trained Herecomesthetruth and The Sawyer, from Bob Buckler's stable, complete the line-up.
O'Neill is hoping course experience will stand Albertas Run in good stead.
"He's been there a couple of times and has won both, but the ground is very important to him," the Jackdaws Castle handler said.
"On his day he's a cracking little horse. He tries his best and does everything really well. He didn't go at all on that ground in the King George. You know your fate early on if he can jump out of the ground." (© Independent News Service)